Alberta parents show declining preference for local public schools

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Appeared in the Calgary Sun, June 28. 2017

As families prepare to break for the summer holidays, it’s worth noting that public school enrolment in Alberta is on the decline.

Alberta is widely known, nationally and internationally, for leading Canada in the number of schooling options available to families for the education of their children. Not only are English and French public systems available (as they are in all provinces) but Alberta is one of only three provinces to offer separate publicly-funded and provided Roman Catholic schools, and the only province to permit public charter schools. And Alberta provides the most generous financial support to families choosing independent schools and homeschooling.

Alberta is also unique in another way— it’s struggling to keep up with the demand for new public school construction, while many other provinces are closing underutilized facilities. And yet, public school enrolment in Alberta—measured as a share of total enrolment—is dropping.

Across Canada the number of school-aged children (5 to 17 years of age) has decreased by 6.6 per cent between 2000 and 2015. Alberta, the only province bucking this trend, has seen a growth of 11.6 per cent over this period. As such, Alberta is the only province to see an increase in the number of students (more than 32,000) enrolled in public schools. But a closer look at school enrolments, within the context of a growing population of young people, reveals a different story.

When measured as a share of total enrolment, the portion of students enrolled in English public schools declined from 73.1 per cent in 2000-01 to 68.1 per cent in 2014-15. In other words, although the number of students attending public schools has increased—thereby necessitating new school construction—increasingly, families are choosing other educational options for their children.

Roman Catholic schools attracted the second largest portion of students, increasing their share of total enrolment from 21.8 per cent in 2000-01 to 23.5 per cent in 2014-15.

And there are 13 charter schools in the province, which operate independently but do not charge tuition and are considered public schools. Enrolment in charter schools increased from 0.4 per cent of total enrolment in 2000-01 to 1.4 per cent in 2014-15.

At the same time, the province saw growth outside the public systems. Compared to 2000-01, nearly 11,000 additional students attended an independent school in Alberta in 2014-15—an increase of nearly 60 per cent. As a share of total enrolment, independent school students increased from 3.2 per cent in 2000-01 to 4.4 per cent in 2014-15.

Additionally, some families decide to educate their children themselves. Although homeschooling is a small education sector, it continues to grow. Homeschooling enrolment, as a share of total enrolment, increased from 0.9 per cent in 2000-01 to 1.4 per cent in 2014-15. There were 9,631 registered homeschool students in Alberta 2014-15—more than British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba combined.

Simply put, these enrolment shifts are important as policymakers contemplate education in Alberta. Although Alberta is the only province in the country to experience an increase in the number of students enrolled in its public school systems, more and more families are looking beyond their neighbourhood English public school for the education of their children.

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