On behalf of Public Interest Alberta, I recently joined with representatives of 13 other organizations, including the Alberta Teachers’ Association, to put forward a proposal to the provincial government to strengthen public, Catholic and francophone school systems across the province.
The proposal has two parts. The first is to phase out public subsidies to private schools over a period of three years, exempting special education schools, saving the province approximately $100 million per year.
The second part is to reallocate that funding to fulfill the NDP’s election promises to reduce class sizes, increase classroom supports and introduce a school lunch program. Our proposal also included reducing school fees, but we were pleased the government followed through on that commitment on March 2 by tabling its Bill 1: An Act to Reduce School Fees.
Defenders of private school subsidies stick to two main arguments to protect the status quo, which sees private schools receive 70 per cent of the per pupil operational funding paid by government to public, separate or francophone school boards.
The first is that they are saving the system money because public money would pay for 100 per cent of their costs if they were in the public system. The logic seems sound on the surface but quickly breaks down when we get into the details.
The assumption this argument requires is that all of the students currently enrolled in private schools would flock to public school systems if they were not subsidized. The problem with this logic is that it simply isn’t true.
Prior to 2008, private school subsidies in Alberta were given at a rate of 60 per cent. The result of the 2008 increase to a rate of 70 per cent, by their logic, should have meant a higher percentage of students enrolling in private schools. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the student enrolment rate in private schools stayed the same. Today’s rate of private school enrolment is essentially the same as it was in 1997 when private schools were funded at 50 per cent.
We also have the benefit of being able to compare Alberta’s funding model for private schools to other Canadian provinces. Five of the 10 Canadian provinces do not provide a single public dollar to private schools. The logic should follow, then, that most or all parents in those provinces send their children to public schools, but again, this doesn’t pan out. Ontario provides zero public dollars to private schoolers, yet its rate of student enrolment in private schools is actually higher than it is in Alberta.
This evidence from Ontario and Alberta shows that the rate of public subsidies has no direct correlation to the number of students enrolled in private schools. Clearly, private school subsidies are costing us, not saving us, a lot of public dollars.
The second argument private schoolers use is that they pay taxes in this province, and their tax dollars should follow students to whichever type of school they choose. The problem with this argument is that public services are not designed to fund any option an individual chooses.
If a person doesn’t like the local police service, for example, they have the right to hire a private security guard, but they don’t get public dollars from the government to do so. The same should be true of schools. Through our government, we should build the best public education systems we can that are open to every child at no cost. Any parent can choose to opt out of the public system and have their children attend a private school, but they should not expect public dollars to pay for that choice.
We all know Alberta is not currently in the greatest fiscal shape. For years, our province has relied on resource revenues to fund our basic public services, including education, and low oil prices in recent years have drastically reduced those revenues.
There is a conversation we as Albertans need to have about how we can raise significantly more tax revenue on an annual basis to ensure we protect and strengthen our public services. That solution isn’t going to be implemented overnight, but in the meantime, the public subsidies we currently give to private schools is money better spent elsewhere.
There is a clear need for that revenue to strengthen our public, Catholic and francophone school systems by reducing class sizes, increasing classroom supports and introducing a permanent school lunch program. After all, having the best public education system we can possibly build benefits all Albertans.
Joel French is the executive director of Public Interest Alberta.
This opinion column represents the views of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.