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.

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