Public Dollars Should Remain in Public Schools

Update April 23rd, 2016:

The EPSB Board of Trustees approved my motion as amended. The new amendment read:

That the Board of Trustees reaffirm its commitment to Alternative Programs within Edmonton Public Schools and continues to advocate that the provincial government should phase public funding away from private schools and reinvest it in public education. Furthermore, that the Minister should incorporate charter schools into public school boards.

This replacement motion still encapsulates our principled position on this issue, but also reminds our parents that we are committed to the dozens of choice programs within our public framework.

The debate was very educational. I didn’t know this, but Ontario does not give any public subsidy to public schools. Another reader emailed me this:

The proportion of funding that private schools get is an arbitrary number. Prior to 1998, it was 50% (a proportion that is much more common in other provinces). Jim Prentice was part of a task force that then pushed the number to 60%: http://rabble.ca/…/1998-private-school-funding-report-puts-…

Today’s 70% funding level was made at a closed door caucus meeting held by the PCs in the dead of summer 2008 during the Calgary Stampede – a move surely meant to fly under the radar: http://www.teachers.ab.ca/…/Province%20increases%20private%…

It is interesting to note that the increases to funding had little effect on the proportion of students that attended private schools. I’m quite sure that parents opt for private school independently of how much public funding they receive and that rolling back the funding level would not drive students back to the public system en masse.

 I had a great discussion with one of my parent friends yesterday about private facilities that receive special needs support. I think it is crucial to distinguish that some private schools are very class-based and charge thousands and thousands of dollars of annual tuition. There are others that are publicly subsidized religious schools teaching a very specific denomination or faith. To me these are very clear examples of where church and state should be separated or where giving millions to the millionaires is not warranted. With the third example of special needs school sites, as I stated below, this points to a greater need for public investment in the public school system so every child can receive the education they deserve.
I also had another interesting discussion about public oversight and the lack of transparency from Private/Charter schools. Going beyond the idea that they should be supervised by all citizens (like the public or catholic system), they should also have to be subject to FOIP and the same public disclosure regulations that all other school boards are.

 

With the review of the Education Act, now is the time for Premier Notley and her cabinet to ensure that public tax dollars are best being allocated to support public education.

I support the elimination of public subsidies to private schools immediately. But if the Minister isn’t ready to go there yet, as a compromise position, the minister could phase out the subsidies over a reasonable period of time.

Either way, this is an area that requires review by the Ministry of Education, especially considering there is a new Education Act and severe budget pressures.

This Tuesday (April 19th, 2016) we will be debating my motion:

That the Board of Trustees reaffirm its commitment to the provincial government that public funding to private or charter schools should be phased out and reinvested in public education. (link to Board Package)

Based on the dialogue I’ve been having with parents, I thought I would try to pull together a blog post with some of the background and arguments on this subject I have been hearing:

Understanding the debate:

As was reported in the Calgary Herald, Alberta is the only province to fund charter schools, which receive the same per-student funding as public schools, but don’t qualify for infrastructure and maintenance funding. Private schools are eligible for 60 to 70 per cent of per-student funding.

For clarity, in Alberta public education typically means Public, Separate/Catholic, and Francophone Schools. I seek to continue to support the plethora of choice programs we have within the public school system (French immersion, Mandarin Bilingual, Cogito, Judaic, Islamic, Christian, and dozens more…) but I take exception to our system subsidizing private school education with public tax dollars.

Facing a multi-billion dollar deficit, Premier Notley and Minister Eggen will be carefully trying to figure out how to preserve public education funding in future budgets. The first place they should start is phasing  the $200* million dollars from Private schools back into public education. (*unclear how much funding in totality goes to private schools. I’m examining this year’s funding manual)

Subsidizing private school tuitions is essentially incentivizing a decision that a stakeholder was going to make anyway. This is a frustration I regularly hear from parents and school council members who complain to me about this school segregation. The public school is legally obliged to educate the highest need, most socio-economically challenged, and special needs students, while the private school down the road continues to pick-and-choose their students–and receives  public money to do so.

No one disputes the right of the private school to exist and the social status, ideological or faith reasons the parents hold to send their children to that school. We just remain frustrated that our schools pick up the public burden while they receive the public benefit.

My opposition is both philosophical (segregating and dividing society is anti-democratic and will have long term negative consequences such as in other countries) and logistical (impractical investment, duplication of administration).

Last week, Public Interest Alberta renewed their call for the government to end provincial funding for private schools and absorb charter schools into the provincial school boards. I agree with this call and would encourage you to read their release here:

“We need to direct public funding to schools that operate under democratically elected school boards, which operate with public accountability and transparency of expenditures, rather than to private entities with private agendas.” (said French)

“Private schools have a right to exist, but not to receive public funding,” French stated. “Last year the Alberta government gave over $200 million in public funds to private schools. These are difficult financial times, and that same sum of money could have been used to eliminate school fees for all parents across the province, provide school lunch programs for children living in poverty throughout Alberta, or pay for much-needed programs to support indigenous learners.”

French pointed out that Alberta’s school boards were on record as supporting this direction, with the Alberta School Boards’ Association having passed a formal motion in November 2013 calling on the government to reallocate to public education funding currently given to private schools, in order to better build “a viable, sustainable public education system.”

In terms of Alberta’s charter schools, French called for the government to end the experiment and bring the schools fully into the public education system. “Charter schools were introduced early in the Klein era with the promise that they would promote innovation and provide competition for the public system. Two decades later there are still only thirteen charter schools.  They haven’t delivered on that promise, and no other provinces have gone in this direction because charter schools are not necessary or helpful.”

French pointed out that Alberta has been recognized for developing a culture of school improvement across the province through the former Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI,) and charter schools are simply not needed. “Alberta has a well-developed system of support for alternative schools and programs within our public and separate schools, and Edmonton Public Schools in particular has demonstrated how to accommodate legitimate desires for choice and diversity within the public system.  It is clearly time for charter schools to be absorbed by school boards as part of the public education system, or to become private schools.”

They also posted this handy backgrounder worth reviewing:

Can a private school operator refuse to enrol my child? Yes. A private school operator can refuse to enroll a student. This is because the School Act does not require private school operators to provide education programs to every student.

Do private school operators offer special education programs? Private school operators are not required to admit students with special needs. However, once an accredited funded private school enrolls a student with special education needs, Alberta Education requires the private school operator to provide appropriate education programming for that student for the school year in which that student is enrolled.

Public Interest Alberta noted that this not a new position for public school boards, and Edmonton Public Schools was one of a chorus of school boards who supported eliminating funding for Private schools in 2013 at the Alberta School Boards’ Association:

“Public boards are being strapped a bit for cash and we’re trying to do more with less,” said Helen Clease (ASBA President)… “We don’t have an issue with there being private schools,” Clease added. “But we believe that the public dollars should go to public schools where every child can have access to that education.”

– David Howell, “Private school funds under fire,” Calgary Herald, Nov. 21, 2013

Charter schools were established in an era where there were not choice programs in public school systems. As you can see by the choice offerings in Edmonton or Calgary Public schools, there are dozens and dozens of programs already available within the public system. Charter schools were also intended to produce research — which to my understanding has not been produced. These charter schools could be easily re-incorporated back into the oversight and efficiency of the larger public administration umbrella. Millions of dollars are being spent on duplicated administration of the Charter schools that would not be necessary in the public system.

Quoting David Climenhaga:

“Alberta is the only Canadian province that funds charter schools, which are generally defined as ‘alternative’ schools that receive government money but are really just private schools that are subsidized by taxpayers. There’s a good reason we’re alone on this. It’s a bad policy that takes money from taxpayers to bankroll often dubious and poorly monitored specialty programs, many of which cherry-pick students on such grounds as how likely they are to succeed and how much money their parents have. Practically speaking, it also takes money away from public education. Alberta’s charter schools, which often try to deny their teachers fair pay and union representation, continue to receive the full per-student grant provided to public and separate schools.” David Climenhaga, AlbertaPolitics.ca, April 3, 2016

According to Understanding Canadian Schools (4th Ed) – 

All provinces have at least a few independent (also called private) schools. An independent school can be defined as a school that is not governed by a public school board, and that is selective about whom it admits as students, whether the selection process is based on grounds of ability, religion, or some other criterion. Students are usually charged tuition fees. Most private schools in Canada are religious in orientation. (p. 159)

A few of the arguments on the issue:

1. Private Schools provide a private, not a public good. Private Schools should have a right to exist– but not to receive any public funding.

All Alberta communities are entitled to strong publicly funded schools supported by the public purse, and accountable through elected school boards. It is a basic right and a responsibility of government to provide it to all citizens.

In every community in Alberta there is a public school that, by law, is required to take your student. That means that every student who currently attends a private school has a desk waiting for them at their local designated public school. If their parents want to make the choice to send their children to a different school, or study abroad, or send their children to boarding school in another province, they should have to pay the full-freight of doing so themselves. That is their families choice.

If you ran a business and were unhappy with the local police department, you would have a right to add your own security system, but that would be at your own expense. Just as companies who want additional or alternative security pay for it themselves, so should families who wish to pursue additional education services. If you aren’t happy with your own local library branch, I shouldn’t have to subsidize 70% of your book purchases at Chapters.

Again, I’m not calling for the elimination of Private or Charter schools, merely the public money subsidizing operations. should be used to subsidize the expensive tuitions. Currently Private School tuitions range from $5000 per year to $50,000 or higher. It is unclear to me if there is even a relationship between private school tuition rates and the public subsidy they receive. A reduction in public funding would not automatically mean a tuition increase. It is unclear to me where there profit margins are. Anytime they need to generate more revenue, they can charge their users more. Private schools are also eligible for corporate sponsorships to augment their revenue.

2. Social fragmentation.

There are some who believe that these segregated schools produce negative societal consequences by isolating the “have” from the “have not” kids, and there is extensive research in the United States about the role that private schools play in inequality. There are also some who challenge that Private and Charter schools in Alberta are not teaching the Alberta Curriculum and may not be following provincial legislation in areas such as Bill 10 (Are there Gay Straight Alliances for students who wish to form them?) or comprehensive sexual health education (are they adhering to the fact-based resources available on teachingsexualhealth.ca?).

There are more who have more articulately criticized problems with private schools (leaving out the poor, disadvantaged and special needs children, the high parent tuitions, undermining the democratic fabric of our community, social fragmentation and elitism, and state funding of religion to name a few).

As the late Joe Bower wrote:

James Moffett coined the (unofficial) mantra of private schools with select admissions to be: “Send us winners and we’ll make winners out of them.” 
Alfie Kohn puts it this way: “Institutions that get to choose whom to admit tend to look for the applicants who are good bets to succeed: those who seem smart and compliant, will require the least time and effort, and are most likely to make the school look good. And that means those who most need what your school has to offer are turned away.”
As bad as schools with select admissions are, I can think of few things more morally bankrupt and intellectually indefensible than publicly funded private schools with select admissions. 

 

3. Why are we giving a public subsidy for private choice?

Or then-MLA, now MP Kent Hehr:

“I believe our public school system is an excellent place for kids to learn,” he said. “If people do not want to take part in the public school system, that is their right. But it’s not a corresponding right for the taxpayers to fund that choice for a religious or cultural option.”

Last year, the NDP followed in the steps of the  Tory Government designated $226 million for private schools. Those are public tax dollars from the public education system, designed to education and support all students, given to private school operators as a subsidy. That’s millions of dollars that could support our public school students– many of them who need it the most!

Why are we giving away public tax dollars for the education of private school students and families. We the taxpayers have already build the roads, the schools, the libraries, the community halls, and the hospitals. Why should we now be cutting an enormous cheque to families who could enrol their students in the public  classrooms available to them tomorrow?

According to the AISCA, the lobby group for the Private schools, there are more than 100 private community operated kindergartens and more than 100 private schools in the province, educating approximately 4.5% of the K-12 students in the province. These students have opted out of the public system already and are paying additional tuition and fees. For these families if we removed the public funding that subsidizes their private tuition, some of them would stay at the schools anyway, while some would return to the public system. It would depend on how the private operators decided to adjust tuition as well as other factors. I don’t know if there is a relationship to the cost of their education to tuition charged.

4. Is there capacity within the public education system? Yes! Even if 100% of these students returned to our classrooms, we have room for those students in the public system, and would welcome their return. But if they wish to remain in their private school (which I believe most would because if cost was the motivator they would have gone to a public school in the first place), we respect their choice, but will reallocate the public subsidy back to the public classroom.

Imagine the impact on the most vulnerable students in Alberta if those dollars were reinvested in the public school system?

5. Do private schools save the public system money? No. There is a reason only a few other provinces provide public funding for private schools (and no other province has Charter schools). We would save even more money if those students were paying the full cost of their private tuition (without the 70% public subsidy) as demand for private school is relatively inelastic (regardless of the cost they would still purchase the product at their own expense).
In other words, we are paying them $226 million for something they would likely do anyway. These Parents chose the private school for status, philosophical or religious reasons– not to mention the tax receipt for tuition— over universal, free, public education.

If 70% allegedly saves the system money, what about 60%? or 50%? Or even 40%? A phased approach to reducing funding would keep more money in the system while respecting parent choice.

Returning to the social fragmentation argument– on a philosophical level, even if every single one of those students left their private school tomorrow for a public school desk, I would be prepared to cover the hypothetical slight cost difference because I believe in the fundamental mission of public education– social cohesion, social mobility, and societal advantages that it brings. Our communities are better off when we learn to live together.

6. Any system must have a reasonable limit on choice. Many school systems allow for choices already and as such if the public choice offerings are not sufficient for you and you want to choose a private school, that choice should be yours — including the financial cost. I fully support choices within the publicly funded system. Check out the offering by Edmonton Public or Calgary Public Schools— there are amazing programs within the public system.

Some schools are in very high demand. Some neighbourhoods even have lotteries. Some parents want teacher A over teacher B or program A over program B. But there must be some policy framework that is fair to everyone and isn’t just based on your family’s wealth. If their parents want to make the choice to send their children to a different school, or study abroad, or send their children to boarding school in another province, they should have to pay the full-freight of doing so themselves. That is their family’s choice.

7. What about private special needs programs? There are some who suggest that because certain private schools cater to the special needs students that they should also be given funding. I disagree. If government wants to improve outcomes, they should invest more in the public special needs programs rather than subsidize delivery to the private centres. If families still want to make that choice to go to a specialized site, they should pay the full-freight themselves. A good education shouldn’t be contingent upon your families capacity to pay expensive tuitions to private providers. as we have excellent programs already in our public system that these families can access.

This two-tier, pro-private school mentality is an archaic ideological relic of the culture of past Progressive Conservative Party governments. Restoring public funding to the needy students who need it the most would pay a far greater dividend in terms of our provincial well-being than subsidizing the tuition of those families who can afford to pay more anyway.

8. The NDP have not traditionally supported public funding for private schools. What have other political parties said?

The Alberta Party, the Liberal Party, the NDP and the Greens have all called for an end to public subsidy of private and charter schools. Janet Keeping wrote this blog post on the Green Party of Alberta blog: 

In no country is this function of public education more important than here in Canada where we have one of the most diverse populations in the world.  Learning to appreciate, live with and make decisions together with others from very different backgrounds – perhaps most importantly, with children from families of very different degrees of poverty or wealth – is essential to keeping our society functioning in a sympathetically democratic way.  This is accomplished in large part through a public education system.

Private schools on the other hand segregate children along lines that inhibit the development of that democratic sympathy, for example, along religious, gender, cultural and wealth lines. 

Unfortunately, at this time, it seems that the NDP has no plan to roll back funding for private charter schools at this time: http://calgaryherald.com/news/politics/no-plans-to-change-funding-model-for-private-charter-schools-says-education-minister

9) What about other school boards or education advocates?
Private School funding is still a matter of controversy. I repost a comment from Bruce Pettigrew former Chair and Trustee with Rockyview Schools that he posted to the Calgary Herald Story:

I cannot understand why the Alberta taxpayer has to subsidize the private choice of a few people at the expense of the public good. Private schools and many charter schools are by their mandate and nature exclusionary. They ‘cherry pick’ their students, increase fees so they can deliver smaller class sizes, and then claim to be doing a ‘better’ job than the public schools which welcome all students regardless of ability.

The Alberta taxpayer gives out something to the tune of 275 MILLION $ for this small group. Granted it will be argued that these students would be in the public system if
they were not in private schools but I would counter that many would remain in the private/charter system regardless. As well I acknowledge that there are a few charter/private schools that take very difficult students but I believe with proper funding of special needs those students would be equally successful in the public system.

A final note regarding Charter Schools. When the Charter schools were first proposed and charters granted they were to operate on the basis of delivering definable improvements for students as opposed the the public system. They were to be evaluated regularly by the Department and, if not delivering, the charter was to be revoked. I do not believe this has ever happened in Alberta (fraud and financial malfeasance excepted). Where is the accountability for the extra funding of charter schools?

Education leaders have long been critical of public subsidies for private schools. Here is a letter from 2008:

The Alberta School Boards Association (ASBA), the College of Alberta School Superintendents (CASS), the Association of School Business Officials of Alberta (ASBOA), and the Alberta School Councils Association (ASCA) jointly will be sending a letter to Premier Ed Stelmach expressing our concerns and requesting that he reconsider the decision to increase public funding for private schools.

The main message to the premier is this: Private schools can pick and choose students, do not have to follow the same rules as public schools and are not accountable to any elected authority. More privatization of our education system is the wrong path to follow, if for no other reason than it encourages inequity in the education of children.

From: Heather Wellwood, president, Alberta School Boards Association; Paulette Hanna, president, College of Alberta School Superintendents; Russell Horswill, president, Association of School Business Officials of Alberta; and Trina Boymook, president, Alberta School Councils Association

For further history into the connections between Jim Prentice, the PC Party, and Private Education, please see David Climenhaga’s excellent Backgrounder on this subject:

If you are looking for information from Alberta Education, please see: https://education.alberta.ca/parents/choice/private.aspx

To support other public education advocates trying to support strong public schools, connect with:
http://www.supportourstudents.ca/ and read their op-ed response: https://www.facebook.com/notes/support-our-students-alberta/open-letter-to-calgary-herald-editorial-board/1743550082592372


As always, I would like to hear your thoughts. Please feel free to send me an email: michael@michaeljanz.ca

You can also contact your local school trustee at www.epsb.ca.