Private schools and charter schools reduce strain on Alberta budget

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Appeared in the Calgary Herald, April 23, 2016

While parents in Alberta have more choice for their children’s education than Canadians in most other provinces, that level of choice may soon be reduced by the current government in Edmonton. In response, Ric McIver, Progressive Conservative Party Leader, recently tabled a private member’s motion, asking the government to affirm its commitment to allow parents the choice of education for their children, including home, charter, private, francophone, separate, or public education programs. A debate on the motion took place earlier this week highlighted by a heated exchange between McIver and the house speaker, and McIver’s expulsion from the legislative assembly.

So what’s really going on here?

As reported in the Edmonton Journal, Public Interest Alberta, an advocacy group, has called for an end to the funding of independent schools in Alberta and the absorption of charter schools into the public school system.

Their reasons follow the usual line of argument. Public boards are strapped for cash. Public dollars should go to public schools. At a time where every bit would help in the public education system, we have to support public education. Education alternatives outside of the public system take money away from public education.

But is this indeed the case?

As Albertans ponder this potential landmark education reform, they should bear a few basic education spending facts in mind.

First, Alberta already has the third highest per public school student funding in the country, behind only Saskatchewan and New Brunswick. Alberta spent $13,234 per student (in 2012/13, the latest year of comparable data). After adjusting for increases in student enrolments and price changes (inflation), Alberta increased per student spending by 31.2 per cent over the previous decade, more than the average provincial increase for that period.

Second, consider, in contrast to public school spending, what Alberta spends educating students in private schools. According to Alberta Education Minister David Eggen’s office, in 2015/16, $151 million was spent on students in accredited independent schools (most, but not all, are funded). With 28,627 students in independent schools, this translates into average government spending of less than $5,275 per private school student.

Consider the same calculation for charter schools—government schools that operate with more autonomy, outside of the local school district structure and with their own board of trustees. Charter schools receive no capital funding, only funding for operations, and they may not charge tuition. According to Minister Eggen’s office, in the current school year, the Alberta government spent $83 million on charter schools. With total enrolments of 9,275 students, the average spending per student was under $8,950.

The logic of calls to cease this funding is difficult to follow.

If public schools require more than $13,000 taxpayer dollars to educate a student while other forms of schooling, such as independent and charter schools, require substantially fewer public dollars, under $5,300 and $9,000 respectively, how is it cost-effective to discontinue funding these alternatives?

It’s easy to see how this reform could actually result in more government spending to educate the same number of students. For example, if we only examine operational spending, the Alberta government would actually be required to spend more money educating the same number of students if less than one-in-three students remained in independent schools after funding was eliminated. There’s little doubt that such a change would result in public boards being even further “strapped for cash.”

Third, parents in Alberta want choice in education. Public school enrolments as a share of total school enrolments declined in Alberta from 2000/01 to 2012/13 while the share of students enrolled in independent and charter schools increased.

Independent schools and charter schools don’t take money away. They leverage public dollars towards cost-effective alternative approaches to education, approaches that parents, by their increased propensity to enrol their children, seem rather satisfied with. Those education choices will be constrained in the future, particularly for low- and middle-income families, if the current funding arrangements are eliminated.

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