Budget primer—getting the facts straight on Alberta independent school funding

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Appeared in the Calgary Sun, March 16, 2017

It’s budget day in Alberta, and some interest groups, including an organization called Public Interest Alberta, want the Notley government to eliminate government funding for independent schools.

Unfortunately, the case for defunding independent schools is being made largely on the basis of incorrect claims and mistaken analysis, which must be corrected to allow for an informed debate.

Under current rules, qualifying independent schools receive a per-student grant from the provincial government of between 60 and 70 per cent of the amount given to local government school districts for operating costs. Parents and families are on the hook for remaining tuition costs, in addition to paying taxes that support government schools.

This places independent schools at a competitive disadvantage compared to government schools, where nearly all costs are directly covered by the government.

For some, however, this disadvantage still isn’t enough. Hence the call for eliminating partial funding for independent schools.

Of course, dramatically increasing the out-of-pocket cost of independent school enrolment would induce or compel some parents to put their kids back into the government-run system.

But when kids leave independent schools for government ones, it means classrooms get more crowded and budgets get strained. For each such child, the government becomes responsible for 100 per cent of the per-student operating cost rather than the 60-70 per cent it paid to the independent school. In short, such shifts cause no change in government revenue, but cause government education spending to go up.

When pressed on these points, a spokesperson for the group Public Interest Alberta shot back, claiming that “almost all” children currently enrolled in independent schools would remain in those schools “no matter what rate they are subsidized at.”

This argument flies in the face of both basic economics and common sense. Consumers of all goods and services, including education, consider the price of various options when choosing what to buy. Increasing the price of independent schooling by thousands of dollars will, of course, price some families out of the independent system.

The mistaken notion that independent school parents are completely insensitive to prices is likely based on mistaken stereotypes about these parents. There’s an incorrect view held by some that independent schools are primarily urban, elite institutions populated by very rich families.

The reality, however, is that less than 5 per cent of independent schools in the province could possibly conform to the stereotype of elite preparatory schools.

In fact, many parents choose independent schools for different approaches to learning than those offered by government schools. For example, about half of all independent schools in the province have a religious orientation despite Alberta being one of only three provinces that provide Catholic education within the government school system. In addition, about a quarter of independent schools are “specialty schools,” with a curriculum emphasis in a specific area such as arts, language, athletics or a distinct approach to learning (e.g. Waldorf or Montessori).

These schools are populated by students from families with diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, not just students from super-rich families who can easily manage the removal of the limited funding their schools receive from the government for their child’s education.

The Notley government has stated it won’t reconsider funding for independent schools this year, but has left the door open to changes in the future. Any discussion about doing so should be informed by evidence and analysis about what independent schools in Alberta really are and who they serve—not misleading stereotypes from groups committed to undermining alternatives to the government-run system.

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