CALGARY — In the recent Alberta budget, millions of dollars were devoted to funding private education, even though there appears to be very little public support for this. The Sheldon Chumir Foundation asked Albertans about their vision of public education in recent consultations in nearly a dozen communities. A majority of Albertans surveyed said that they did not support spending public dollars on private education. Why does the provincial government continue to transfer public dollars to private education without a clear mandate to do so?
According to Alberta Education’s funding manuals, base funding for private education is up to 70 per cent of public funding per student. The 2013 Alberta budget allocated $206 million toward private education, a 5.1 per cent increase from the previous year. Budget projections show that the allotment for private education will increase by 16 per cent over the next three years to $226 million.
The rationale offered for increasing support for private education is to keep up with a five per cent enrollment increase from last year. This is misleading. The total private student population has only increased four per cent from 2003. Private enrollment isn’t soaring: there is simply a greater proportion of private students now receiving public funding — from 72.6 per cent in 2003 to 96.7 per cent today.
The public system — comprising all Catholic separate and public school divisions — experienced an annual enrollment increase of more than 2.7 per cent last year. Yet the funding increase to the public system was not proportional at 0.76 per cent in the coming year and just over six per cent in three years.
Is the disproportionate increase in public dollars for private education justifiable?
Does the provincial government even have a mandate to support the already generous funding of private education in Alberta? If not, then public dollars should not be funding private education. Even if there is broad public support for more publicly-funded private education, to what degree should public dollars fund private interests?
From Fort McMurray to Lethbridge and points in between, more than 500 Albertans gave the same message: government funding should go to public education systems, full stop.
There was very little support for allocating public dollars to funding private interests. In related questions, 99.5 per cent of respondents stated that the Alberta government should be funding public education, whereas only one in 10 suggested that the government should have any role in funding private interests.
Even among the minority of individuals surveyed who had themselves attended private schools, nearly two thirds stated that private schools should not receive any public dollars. Only 25 per cent of those who received private schooling agreed that public dollars should fund any private education, and only five per cent agreed with providing full per student public funding to private schools.
There is a serious disconnect between public views concerning the funding of public education and what is actually allocated in the Alberta budget.
Focus group and survey respondents were unwavering about not wanting to see our successful public education system weakened by devoting public resources to private schools.
Albertans surveyed clearly described the consequences of further changes to create an education system focused on increasing privatization and hyper-choice. Parents shared many stories about how dividing our school systems into an increasing number of private and alternative schools fragments neighbourhoods and subdivides our society into polarized units.
These divisions were seen as negative because they threaten the overall quality of children’s education, erode a sense of community, and divide children into economic classes. Those who can afford the extra tuition opt out of the public system, yet take funding resources with them when they go. Respondents also saw expansion of private education as a threat to the public system because it is administratively burdensome and expensive to maintain multiple systems.
Parents stated that they want meaningful involvement in their children’s education. Those we met who were more involved were also more passionate about their local education system. Parents suggested the province should concentrate on fostering more passionate involvement in the public system rather than further privatizing education.
Albertans consulted clearly stated that the province needs to get back to basics in public education. Albertans’ ideas were to refocus education efforts on strengthening our public system with a community-minded emphasis. Fragmentation of education, rationalized as providing choice, was generally rejected as expensive, administratively burdensome, and divisive of our communities.
Kelly Ernst is senior program director with the Calgary-based Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership.