The Funding of Independent Schools in Alberta
Private school funding has gained some attention recently with criticism from a group called Progress Alberta and a motion by the Edmonton Public School Board to defund private schools. This seems to be an annual occurrence which coincides with the provincial government allocating their budget for the upcoming year. Thankfully the Minister of Education, Minister Eggen, has clearly stated to the media that, “We continue to support the critical role parents play in their children’s education, which includes their ability to choose the school they feel will best ensure their child’s success”.
Private schools, also referred to as independent schools, have existed in this province since before Alberta joined Confederation in 1905 and they also predate the public education system. One of the reasons that the Alberta education system has a strong reputation internationally is because it offers extensive parental choice within a wide range of options including public, charter, home and independent schooling. Within each of these four larger sectors, there exists a rich mosaic of schools designed to meet the particular needs and interests of Alberta families. These include religious and secular schools and schools that have a particular mission or focus including a focus on fine arts, gender-based education, sports, science, special needs, academics, languages, international programs, specific educational philosophies (like Montessori) and so on. These options exist because in education, as in many other things, the notion of “one size fits all” is a falsehood. Parental choice, when it comes to education, is embedded in the Alberta School Act and it is a value that has been fiercely defended by the citizens of Alberta and supported by the government for many decades. Parental choice in education is in fact a foundational principle in Alberta and it is one of the many things make this province a desirable place in which to live.
The question as to whether or not schools outside of the public school system ought to be funded by taxpayers has been debated extensively over time. However, that funding has endured largely because it makes sense from the perspectives of school choice and economics. The diversity of high quality schools in Alberta adds to the quality of life and education here and saves taxpayers money since independent schools receive only a portion of the grants provided to public schools. The argument that independent schools cost taxpayers more money would only be accurate if all of the independent schools in Alberta could operate with no government funding. The fact is that many, if not most, could not. The removal of government funding would lead to many students withdrawing from independent schools due to rising tuition costs and it is very likely that many of those schools would close. When they did, most of their students would find their way back into public schools where the cost of educating each of them would rise significantly. Not only would the per-pupil operating grant be significantly higher, but additional space would have to be created for those students, many would have to be transported by bus, and there would be additional government spending required to cover the pension costs of the additional teachers that would be required. Third party estimates indicate that the lower grant rate and other savings created by independent schools, which also build their own facilities with no government funding, have saved Alberta taxpayers about $750 million over the last five years. And parents whose children attend independent schools pay their fair share of taxes for public education.
One argument against publicly funding private schools is that they do not accept all students. This is true. The reasons for that are primarily that they have limited space and unique missions and attempt to admit students who are a good fit for those missions. There are also public schools that do not accept all students. For example, The National Sports School, which is part of the Calgary Board of Education, requires an application and a try-out prior to determining admission. Old Scona Academic School, which is part of the Edmonton Public Board requires an application, transcripts and a written entrance exam. Presumably, this is also because of space limitations and the desire to admit students who are a good fit for their missions. One might argue that although a student may not be accepted into one of these unique programs, another school within the public system would accept them. If you look at the independent schools collectively, the same is probably true.
Another lens through which to examine the issue of funding is to view it as a service that is delivered at a reduced cost to taxpayers. Independent schools act as an alternate service provider delivering the Alberta Program of Studies and administering the Provincial Achievement Tests (PATs). The teachers in these schools also contribute to the provincial educational program by participating in PAT marking, item writing and piloting of new tests. In this way, the Ministry of Education delivers a portion of its educational services through an alternate provider at a reduced cost.
One does not have to look far to find other examples of alternate service provision in Alberta. For example, road maintenance is often contracted out to private companies, presumably so that the government can avoid capital equipment costs, maintenance costs, pensions and benefits in the delivery of this service, thereby reducing the cost to taxpayers. The same practice is followed with things like campground management and registry services. A key difference here is that these alternate providers are for-profit companies unlike independent schools, which are registered charities and not for profit. Given that the independent schools in Alberta deliver educational services to around 34,000 students at a reduced cost, why should they receive no funding? Over the decades, the government has created and sustained the environment in which these schools could be established and operated based upon a particular funding model. This has enriched parental choice and saved taxpayers millions of dollars. It seems unreasonable and illogical to suddenly remove the funding that is essential to the operation of most of these schools when they have served parents, students, taxpayers and the government so well over time.
If public education is underfunded, the solution will not be found in defunding independent schools, many of which would close in the absence of government grants. Furthermore, these flawed and singularly focused economic arguments fail to recognize the value of independent schools as an important component of the provincial educational mosaic. Each of these schools is meeting the particular needs of students and parents, otherwise no one would be paying tuition to attend them. By educating these students at a lower cost to taxpayers, allowing them to learn within a context that is aligned with their beliefs, values, culture or unique educational needs/interests, these schools are serving the public good. Like public schools, they are delivering the Alberta curriculum and striving to prepare students for living and working in a rapidly changing world. They have simply acknowledged their beliefs that one size does not fit all and that parental choice in education is still an important democratic value in Alberta.
How you can help
The Alberta Independent Schools and Colleges Association (AISCA) acts as an advocacy group for issues like this, and have been featured in the media many times recently, sharing the message of the great work that is being done in independent schools across our province. AISCA suggests that powerful statements in support of choice in education are much more impactful coming from individuals, than coming from the private schools themselves.
We encourage our STS community to add to the conversation in defense of the value private schools bring to our province as a whole. Please consider contacting Minister David Eggen to help express our appreciation for this government’s continued support for all children in our province, and the value they have placed on choice in education. Positive reinforcement can go a long way.
We greatly appreciate your support and thoughts regarding this issue.
Dr. William Jones
Head of School