In the most recent municipal election, Calgarians voted overwhelmingly in support of public education and public schools. They did so by showing up in force — voter turnout in public school trustee races increased by almost 10 per cent overall over 2017. In one ward, the voter turnout grew by almost 20 per cent.
Equally important, of course, was who was voted into office. On the campaign trail, most successful candidates clearly stated the need to both strengthen and protect public education.
This is important because we have a battle ahead of us. And we need strong leaders in public education to stand up against a hostile, out-of-touch provincial government.
Ever since this government was elected, they have made clear they are prioritizing private interests over the public good. They are working to systematically dismantle and defund the public education system as we know it.
Here are a few recent examples:
- Removing the word “public” from the names of public school boards. This can be viewed as blurring the line between public and private schools.
- Cutting the CBE’s (and many other boards’) budget in the middle of a school year, an action that has never been done before in Alberta.
- Introducing a new funding formula based on a weighted moving average. The new funding formula depends on a lagging indicator. It means that funding doesn’t keep pace with enrolment growth in school districts while other school districts — often in rural centres — do not immediately feel the impact of their shrinking student enrolment.
As Noam Chomsky reminds us, “That is the standard technique of privatization: defund, make sure things don’t work, people get angry, you hand it over to private capital.”
In Alberta, the private capital comes in the form of “choice in education.” This leads us to the game changer on the government’s road to privatization of public education — the Choice in Education Act, which came into effect in September 2020.
The name of this legislation is absurd. Albertans have a lot of publicly funded choice in education, in fact, more than any other province. Public, separate, francophone, charter, home school and private schools are all funded through the public purse to some degree.
So what is the Choice in Education Act actually about? It states support for creating new charter schools and protecting the status and funding of independent schools.
The biggest game changer here is the elimination of the cap on charter schools. Up until now, charter schools were capped in Alberta at 13 and not a threat to public schools. The elimination of the cap and the removal of the authority of local school districts supports the proliferation of these schools.
Charters celebrate that they offer choice, yet we already have choice in the public system. For instance, the Calgary Board of Education offers a girls’ program, a boys’ program, a science program, an arts program and French immersion, to name just a few examples.
Of course, the government is not talking about choice in public schools. The idea is to strangle and defund the public school system so they can no longer offer this choice, and that is where private schools and charter schools come in.
We are already seeing examples of this; for instance, the 2019–2029 CBE System Accomodation and Facilitation Strategy highlighted that in the next 10 years, the CBE will need to close 16 community elementary schools to address utilization requirements. These sites are prime picking for charter and private schools to make their way into what was once community schools.
Once “choice” grows in the charter and private schools, it is no longer accessible to all.
Charter schools were originally supposed to operate for a five-year period, after which they and all of their innovation would come back into the public school system. That did not happen. Instead, charters remained and became fixtures on the terrain.
There is only one pot of money. The government invests more than $8 billion each year through the provincial education budget. In an era of fiscal restraint, there is a finite amount of funding for education. We cannot let public school dollars be washed away to private and charter schools.
Teachers are caught on the front lines, but you are not alone. As a trustee from 2015 to 2021, I was inundated with emails and phone calls from people concerned about this government’s actions. Parents, public education organizations and community members who don’t agree with this government’s direction are mobilizing.
Albertans want public education to be strengthened not weakened. They want it protected from the cuts, the proposed curriculum and inadequate protection of students from COVID-19. Albertans are standing right beside you. This is not your fight. This is our fight.
As for new trustees who were voted in to stand up for public education, they must do their part and strongly advocate for funding to go to public education and public schools, where the majority of Calgarians and Albertans choose to send their kids. ❚
Julie Hrdlicka served as a trustee for the Calgary Board of Education from 2015 to 2021.