The War on School Choice (Part 1 of 3: Private Schools)

I think I’m starting to see a pattern here:

  • In April of 2016, Public Interest Alberta and other public education advocates call on the NDP government to end government subsidies for private education in Alberta. At the same time, Edmonton Public Schools (EPS) chairman Michael Janz introduces a motion to lobby the government to stop funding private and charter schools.
  • In October 2016 the NDP tried to shut down the Trinity Christian homeschooling association and their contactor, Wisdom Home Schooling.
  • Last February the Alberta Teachers Association, along with a number of other groups including Public Interest Alberta, lobbied the province to end public funding for independent/private schools.
  • In May 2017 the Red Deer Public School Board voted to advocate for a single publicly-funded school system in Alberta.
  • January 2018 EPS trustee Nathan Ip says he wants Albertans to vote to end the publicly-funded Catholic school system next year by referendum.

It seems that if these rather influential and allied groups had it their way there would be no public support for homeschoolers, independent schools, or Catholic schools, leaving just one option: the public system.

Is there something so terribly dysfunctional about education in Alberta that necessitates this kind of radical revolution and upheaval? Our education system was supposed to be among the best in the world, and yet Mainstreet Research is indicating that the majority of Albertans would support this kind of fundamental reform.

There used to be a saying in this province about not fixing things that aren’t…shoot, now I’ve lost it.

 

What’s Yours is Mine and What’s Mine is My Own

There is a certain glass-housed irony to the argument EPS Board Chair Michael Janz keeps making against public funding for private schools; that is, that “they should pay their own freight in full”. It’s normally the sort of argument that public-spending critics would throw at their opponents. Mr. Janz, on the other hand, is advocating for a system which is inherently contrary to that ‘pay your own way’ principle: people who don’t have children still pay for public schools, as do people who educate their children outside of the public system.

Currently, the province pays $5,200 per student to private schools in Alberta, totalling around $100 million annually. In 2016 Mr. Janz tabled a motion to advocate redirecting these funds to the public system instead, and last year the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA) lobbied the government to this end.  

Intuitively, this would seem to make a certain amount of sense. But our intuition is often wrong when it comes to these sorts of things. For one, the ATA assumes in their cost-savings estimate that most kids in private school would simply stay there if those schools were defunded; in fact, according to Donna Trimble, head of Parents for Choice in Education, more than half of private school pupils are middle-class and lower middle-class, and so would likely be forced to switch to the public system.

Critics of private school funding will counter that Ontario, despite providing no support for private schools, has a private school enrollment rate much higher than that of Alberta (5.6% vs 3.6%, respectively), implying that school choice would not suffer from defunding. However, this position fails to investigate why the rate is so much higher in Ontario, why it has grown quickly in recent years, and why public school enrollments have been falling. One possible answer? Poor academic performance in Ontario public schools (particularly in math), and this despite significant increases in funding for public schools.  

Another reason to stick with the status quo: as David Staples points out, defunding private schools would be socially divisive:

[R]ight now every wealthy Albertan who sends their child to private school has a stake in the public system because they get that 70 per cent funding. If you axe that funding, you create a huge number of ticked off, influential people with no stake in the public system. They will immediately start pushing to defund public education. This political dynamic has led to increasingly poor and non-competitive public schools in the United States. Why open ourselves up to this U.S.-style division?

Other than that they are trying to instigate and politically capitalize on class antagonism, Mr. Janz and the ATA conveniently ignore the fact that the public education system costs taxpayers roughly $13,000 per student vs only $5,200 for those in private schools: private school students are in effect saving the public purse $8,000 each. So, instead of helping to manage a tightening public budgetary environment, as Janz implies will happen, defunding the private system would require the province to actually increase spending on education in addition to limiting school choice.

If anything, solving the provincial budgetary problem could involve increasing the role of private schools in Alberta, since their students cost Alberta taxpayers far less than those in the public system.

‘Berta Playlist

Okay, not all of these are about Alberta, strictly speaking, but you get the point:

Suggestions?

 

Is There an Opinion Deficit in Canada? The CBC Seems to Think So.

The other night, after reading this bizarrely Malthusian article from the CBC Opinion section, I suddenly remembered just how strange it was that the CBC publishes an opinion section at all. It’s been over a year now since this started, and, despite some sleepy criticism in its early days, Canadians by and large appear to have blithely accepted the state-sponsored online opinion platform.  

Before I continue, let me be perfectly clear about this: I have no problem with people holding views that are different than mine. I have no problem with people sharing those views publicly (however much I may disagree with them). But it certainly seems strange that, in a world already saturated with opinion, the CBC finds it necessary to direct taxpayer resources towards the facilitation of yet another channel for conjecture. Was the private media sector in Canada somehow failing us in this regard?

While almost anyone in this country can immediately create, share and access opinions through social media, blogs, email, etc, one might suggest that, due to its privileged position as a publicly-funded media organization, the CBC provides a platform for opinions that a private news service would be reluctant to publish. After all, section (i)(iv) of the CBC/Radio-Canada Mandate states that: “programming provided by the Canadian broadcasting system should…provide a reasonable opportunity for the public to be exposed to the expression of differing views on matters of public concern”.

But is that what we are getting here? If we take a look at the author of the piece that got me started on this topic in  the first place, for instance, Kristen Pyszczyk, we have someone who has been provided with ample opportunity to express herself publicly through a wide variety of platforms offered by the private sector already, including the editorial section of the Globe and Mail. Robyn Urback is a frequent contributor to the National Post — hardly disenfranchised. But then we have Neil Macdonald, who has been writing for the CBC about as long as I have been alive, and who might just be the furthest thing I can imagine from any definition of a ‘differing view’.

Just as a quick aside, I want to point out that Mr. Macdonald seems to have stopped working as a reporter for the CBC basically the exact moment their online opinion section was launched. This is at least consistent with the statement on their Opinion FAQ:

So you can be assured that every opinion column will be clearly labelled to prevent confusion; and that anyone who writes opinion for CBC News will no longer be involved in our traditional journalism.

I suppose that this is an improvement relative to when Mr. Macdonald was writing opinion pieces in the news section. But what I have a hard time understanding now is that if the CBC has the ethical perceptiveness to foresee a potential issue with journalists contributing opinion columns, how do they then see no issue with having a former journalist of nearly 30 years doing so?

One also has to wonder whether Canadian taxpayers, after decades of financing his travels as a foreign correspondent, really need the public news corp to spend their dollars on his opinions now?

Anyways, while the CBC uses public money to amplify the voices of people who are already being heard, its presence in this arena actually makes it harder for actors in the private sector to independently solve whatever scarcity problem might exist. As this editorial piece in Metro Edmonton put it:

While other media struggle to find new ways to pay journalists, the CBC simply continues to lure talent with a publicly funded alternative. Recently, it announced it will soon pay high word rates for opinion columns from outside contributors. Result: The usual publications in which I’d pay more to read this more exclusive, analytical stuff — The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, the National Post and a million of their smaller-market siblings — all just received a publicly funded kick while they’re already down.

It would be interesting to know the details of how much is being paid by the CBC for these opinion pieces and what the going rate was before their (official) entrance onto the stage. I mean, do we really desire a media sector in this country in which top talent always flows to the government-funded service?

Now, while the Fraser Institute alleges that the average salary at the CBC is rather high, when it comes to the salary disclosure the CBC has always been particularly concerned with the privacy of its celebrity contributors. Whether it is equally concerned with holding itself accountable to the taxpayers funding the salaries and professional expenses of those contributors, well, we just have no right to know, I guess. But it is an interesting stance, given their willingness to delve into and disseminate the sunshine lists of other public institutions in the past.

In particular, though, it would be great to know what the salary of Jennifer McGuire is, the General Manager and Editor in Chief of CBC News. Linked to the Opinion FAQ is one of her Editor’s Blog pieces from 2013 titled Opinion vs. Analysis — for a quick trip down the postmodernist rabbit-hole I would highly recommend reading it. After briefly paying lip-service to a ‘Journalistic Policy Guide’ in which impartiality is stated as a core value of the CBC, McGuire reveals her cynicism on the issue when she writes:

There are some who cling to the belief that journalists are, or should be, neutral at all times. This notion of complete impartiality, sometimes called ‘The View from Nowhere’, forbids any analysis, let alone opinion, by journalists.

It would indeed be ridiculous for the CBC’s readership to expect reporters to have a God’s eye view of the story. Reporters are people and ultimately as subjective by nature as any other human being. However, it’s not an entirely unreasonable demand that they at least strive for objectivity, and particularly when this is not a publication anyone in Canada really has the option of not purchasing. We are all paying for it, whether we ‘like’ what they are doing or not.

Here’s another interesting quote from that piece:

Truth be told, journalism would be pretty dull, and ultimately meaningless, if there were no context. And CBC’s programming wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if it didn’t contain analysis. We wouldn’t produce programs like The Current or Power and Politics if all we did was report the facts as they are presented to us.

I don’t necessarily think that the question of whether some people find publicly funded journalism dull or interesting is relevant. Canadians have plenty of other sources of entertainment, and if that is what they are looking for they will happily pay for it on their own accord. In similar fashion, McGuire asserts that “I don’t think that many of you would be satisfied if our political reporters simply listed the contents of a government news release, or one from an opposition party, for that matter.” Actually, I would be fine with that. Why not just leave it up to the thousands of other editorialists, bloggers, private newsgroups and communications professionals out there to provide us with whatever additional context they perceive as relevant? Why is it the duty of the CBC to break everything down and connect the dots for us? In my mind, their doing so actually undermines the legitimacy of the CBC as an authority for information — if they stuck to the plain old boring facts of the matter then I might yet hold some trust in them. Context is fine, as long as the context provided is based on verifiable facts, which are at least attempts to avoid politically convenient generalizations and ideology.

There is no reason for the CBC to be running an online opinion section. Canadians do not need to be paying taxes to have people tell us what opinions to hold. We have greater access to a greater diversity of opinions than at any time in history. I would have thought that in this era of ‘fake news’ allegations, the CBC would feel some sort of imperative to step up and emphasize their adherence to facts and reality; instead, by launching this section, they seem to have taken that slander for a tip.