Alberta government should increase school choice for lower-income families

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Appeared in the Calgary Sun, March 23, 2022
Alberta government should increase school choice for lower-income families

When Education Minister Adriana LaGrange announced an end to mask requirements in Alberta schools, she said “Individual family choices need to be respected.” Which is obviously true. But in addition to lifting COVID restrictions, the Kenney government can also do more to empower parents with educational choices for children still recovering from two years of learning loss, particularly lower-income families who research suggests were hit hardest by the pandemic and school closures.

Indeed, two years of the pandemic and government restrictions have already prompted some families to seek educational options outside of their local government-run public schools. But while some Alberta families can afford to send their children to independent schools, not all families can make that choice.

That’s a shame, because putting parents and students in the driver’s seat is important for all aspects of education—curriculum, pedagogy, philosophy, religious belief, exceptional learning needs and behavioural approaches. Every child is different, and coming out of the pandemic, the needs of each child, be it academic and emotional development, speech, mental and physical health, will vary.

Consider the learning loss over the past two years. According to recent polling by Leger, 68 per cent of Alberta parents say their child has fallen behind due to the pandemic and the government’s pandemic policies. Worse, 18 per cent of Alberta parents have no confidence their child’s school has a plan to catch them up. Again, with varying solutions for learning loss, parents are best-suited to make decisions about what school their child attends.

So what’s the solution?

The Kenney government can empower all Alberta families regardless of income to choose the best school for their child by, for example, adopting a variable voucher system like in Australia where the government helps funds non-government schools serving lower-income families at a higher funding rate than in wealthier communities.

Presently, Alberta allows some portion of parents’ tax dollars to follow their children to the school of their choice, including independent schools. Funded independent schools receive 60 to 70 per cent of the per-student operational funding that government-run public schools receive. The government could increase this funding to expand access. Though research has shown that Alberta’s independent school families span the income spectrum, and that the vast majority (more than 95 per cent) of Canadian independent schools are not “elite” (and those that are “elite” often offer bursaries), for some families the option remains unaffordable. Why should that be the case?

In Alberta, aside from special education private schools, government funding for independent schools is not based on student need or family income. A variable voucher system could provide lower-income families with higher-valued vouchers to attend the independent schools of their choice.

For those worried about the price tag, consider this. The Alberta government spent $13,636 for every student in government-run public schools in 2018/19 (the latest year of comparable data). Because independent schools are only funded for operational costs—not capital costs, like with public schools—increasing the operational funding for independent schools, to increase student enrolment, could actually save taxpayer money.

It makes sense for the Kenney government and Minister LaGrange to empower parents to make decisions for their children. But after two years of learning loss, the government should expand the scope of that commitment and swiftly allow all families, regardless of income, to choose the schools that fit them best.