Public school advocates are again calling on the government to reduce public funding of private schools. Meanwhile, United Conservative Party members will debate a policy in May calling for full and equal funding for private schools.
The Alberta Teachers’ Association has long held that public funds for education should go towards public schools. Here are nine important points related to the public funding of private schools.
1. Public schools accept all students.
Public education (including public, separate and francophone school boards) accepts all resident students. Notwithstanding the constitutional mandates to serve minority, Catholic and francophone communities, public schools do not determine admission based on learning needs, academic ability or socio-economic status.
2. Alberta’s public education system offers expansive programming options.
Sure, certain individual specialized public schools may have selection criteria, but these are for alternative programs within the public system: no student is left without a program to attend. These programs demonstrate that the public system can provide programming alternatives.
3. Adequate special education must be accessible to all.
While some private schools will not accept students with special needs, others cater specifically to those students. I appreciate that many parents are finding success with these schools when public schools are unable to meet specific complex needs. But this is unacceptable. Tuition, travel or other barriers keep some parents from accessing a private education. As the Supreme Court said in Moore v BC, adequate special education is not a dispensable luxury. Public boards need to be better equipped to deal with those needs so that parents do not have to turn to the private system.
4. Alberta subsidizes private schools more than other provinces.
Alberta’s private schools receive 70 per cent of per pupil operating grants provided to public school boards. That’s up from 33 per cent in 1974 and 50 per cent in 1987. Quebec offers 60 per cent; B.C., Manitoba and Saskatchewan give half funding, while Ontario and the Maritimes offer no public support to private schools. Even if you support public funding for privates, 70 per cent is above the norm.
5. Private schools are funded six times more than what their parents contribute in taxes.
“But, private school parents pay taxes, and shouldn’t their taxes go to their kid’s school!” This is a bit of a myth. Taxes pay to make an education system available to all children. You can opt out of using that system, but that shouldn’t allow you to opt out of paying for it. Consider an average two-income, two-child family might pay about $10,000 in provincial income tax and about $1,000 in education property tax. If 15 per cent of that provincial tax revenue is used for education, then that family puts in about $1,650 in taxes while the private school would get back $9,350 for their two children.
6. Private schools do not save money.
Some say the reduced funding and lack of capital contributions amount to a savings for government. But it’s only a savings if you assume that all private school students will switch to public schools if public funding ended. Even with no subsidy, Ontario has higher rates of enrolment in private schools. And a study done by the American pro-private organization edchoice.org found that rates of public funding had no significant impact on enrolment. Simply put, the decision to send students to private school is mostly made for reasons that are independent of funding levels.
7. Private schools create two-tiered education.
Some private schools receive public funding and still charge more than $10,000 tuition. They often tout small class sizes as a recruitment tool. But why should only those who can afford five-figure tuition get access to small class sizes? It is unjust to expect public school students to endure unreasonably large classes while public subsidies enable others to pay for higher tier service.
8. Public governance matters.
The Calgary Board of Education has an annual budget of more than $1 billion. The spending of significant public funds should come with democratic oversight — that’s why we have publicly elected boards of trustees in public education. Some private schools receive more than $7 million per year in public funding without the same public governance.
9. It’s about students, not teachers.
I am often asked why the Alberta Teachers’ Association doesn’t support teachers who work in private schools. Actually, we do. Private school teachers can purchase associate membership and receive a wide range of professional and even some representation services from the ATA. We also provide bargaining support for some groups who have organized under the Labour Relations Code. Furthermore, our aspirational policies support a unified profession that includes private school teachers. Our stance on funding models is about ensuring students have equitable access to high-quality education regardless of their circumstances, and that is why we prefer a well-funded, universally accessible public system. ❚
I welcome your comments—contact me at email@example.com.