Despite activist claims, most independent schools in Alberta are not bastions for the rich

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Appeared in the Calgary Sun, October 19, 2017

In Alberta, school choice is under attack. Alongside several teacher unions and associations, groups such as Public Interest Alberta and SOS Alberta want to reduce the choices available for families outside the province’s public education system by pressuring the Notley government to eliminate government funding for independent schools.

SOS Alberta, for example, claims that independent schools, which provide alternative forms of education (arts or athletics, religious instruction, Montessori, Waldorf, French immersion, etc.) “segregate students” along “many lines.” In reality, Alberta independent schools allow parents to choose a school that best suits the unique needs of their children.

So what drives opposition to government funding of independent schools?

Often, those who oppose funding mistakenly believe that independent schools cater only to the wealthy. And obviously, there are some elite independent schools with tuition fees out of reach for the average Alberta family. However, a recent study found that only 17 of Alberta’s 96 independent schools are “elite” (schools that charge more than 10 per cent of the average after-tax family income in Alberta—$11,190).

In other words, the remaining 82 per cent of independent schools have tuition within reach of the average family. Of course, Alberta families who choose independent schools may need to reprioritize or juggle the family budget, but thanks to partial government funding (either 60 or 70 per cent of the per-student operating grant provided to public schools), and financial assistance provided by the schools themselves, lower- and middle-income families have a choice.

Subsequently, Alberta families who choose non-elite independent schools closely resemble families who choose public schools. In fact, the average after-tax family income for non-elite independent school families is 1.8 per cent less than families with children in public schools ($95,549 compared to $97,301).

Clearly, non-elite schools—again, the majority of independent schools in the province—are not bastions for the rich. Perhaps if opponents of independent school funding in Alberta understood this reality, they’d be less inclined to call for funding cuts.

For cash-strapped families, if the government eliminated partial funding for independent schools, many would be unable to pay tuition and would have to enroll their kids in government-run schools—even if these schools don’t meet their children’s needs.

And yet, earlier this year a spokesperson for Public Interest Alberta dismissed such concerns stating that “almost all” parents with kids in independent schools would keep them there “no matter what rate they’re subsidized at.”

It’s also important to note that independent schools are a small but growing segment of Alberta’s education system. Between 2000/01 and 2014/15 (the latest year of comparable data) enrolment in independent schools increased from 18,491 to 29,400 students—a spike of nearly 60 per cent. As a share of the overall total enrolment in the province, independent school students increased from 3.2 per cent of total enrolment in 2000/01 to 4.4 per cent in 2014/15.

Families choose independent schools for many different reasons. But at the heart of this choice lie the needs and desires of families. Let’s hope the Alberta government puts families first and ignores the persistent calls to eliminate funding for independent schools.

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