Alberta's private school subsidies have surged to the highest in Canada. Here's how it happened
A few weeks ago, Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party released its draft policy framework. Headlines focused on its most overtly extremist elements, including massive tax giveaways to the rich, abolishing the carbon tax and privatizing health care.
But one insidious line slipped under the radar: a pledge to “ensure equal funding regardless of school choice — public, separate, charter, home or private.”
Private schools in Alberta receive the highest per-student public taxpayer subsidy in Canada at 70 per cent. We already subsidize those who can afford to send their kids to elite schools like the $22,000/year Strathcona-Tweedsmuir or $18,800/year Webber Academy.
If we were to fully fund private schools our public education system would face the very real possibility of collapse.
It’s worth remembering that private schools have the ability to pick and choose their students and weed out applicants they don’t want. Your neighborhood public school has to take you in.
This UCP proposal to fully fund private schools would come at the direct expense of public education, sucking money away from new schools, playgrounds and teachers for regular Albertan kids.
How on earth did Alberta get to this point?
Almost all schooling in Canada was private until the early 19th century — created by Catholic and Protestant churches as means to spread religion, morality and cultural influence. The British North America Act of 1867 officially allocated the responsibility of education to the provinces, further entrenched with the Alberta Act of 1905. These created public English Protestant schools and separate French Catholic schools.
Religious values continued to shape the public system up until the middle of the 20th century. As secularization in society grew, some groups — especially Dutch Calvinists — started establishing their own private schools.
“There’s a kind of religious competition involved, to some degree,” said David Rayside, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Toronto and co-author of 2017’s Religion and Canadian Party Politics, in an interview with Progress Alberta. “But there’s also vying for influence between what we might call ‘clericals’ and ‘anti-clericals.’ And that goes back to the 19th century. It’s hasn’t been as nasty as conflict as it has been in parts of Europe, but it’s still part of the Canadian historical fabric.”
In 1946, the Ernest Manning-led Social Credit Party officially recognized private schools via a change to the province’s education act. Manning followed that up in 1967 by diverting public funds to private schools — $100 per student. The seven-term premier retired only a year later, leading to the crushing of his party by the Peter Lougheed-led Progressive Conservatives in 1971.
But the seeds had been sown for the continued growth of private schools in Alberta.
By 1974, the PCs had increased per-student funding to 33 per cent of what public schools were receiving, and was boosted to 40 per cent only two years later. David King, a long-time MLA and provincial education minister between 1979 and 1986, said in an interview with Progress Alberta that people were making the case that separate Catholic schools were receiving full funding and it was “only right” that private schools also received some money.
He remembered particular pressure from the Association of Independent Schools and Colleges, an Edmonton-based organization led by Gary Duthler — a member of the Christian Reformed tradition and an “active ongoing and determined advocate” for more funding, according to King.
Between 1980 and 1987, the province boosted funding for private schools at a rate that was 50 per cent faster than for public schools. By the mid-1980s, some 13,000 students were enrolled in private schools. Rayside of the University of Toronto said that a “coincidence of interests” were formed between religious conservatives and free enterprisers, creating a concerted force. Out of this emerged the coded language of “parent choice,” which subtly linked principles of “freedom” with the increased privatization of education.
Ralph Klein took things to a whole new level following his election as premier in 1992.
Massive changes to the education system were made almost immediately in the name of “parent choice” — slashing wages for teachers, cutting kindergarten funding, repealing schooling regulations, amalgamating school boards, removing attendance boundaries and eliminating taxation powers for schools. Charter schools were legislated in 1994. A pro-privatization group, Albertans for Quality Education, received significant attention from government despite only comprising 325 members.
In April 1997, PC MLA Carol Haley introduced a private member’s bill which proposed to increase annual funding of private schools by $14 million. This move split the PC caucus, with education minister Gary Mar against the bill and provincial treasurer Stockwell Day for it. In response, Klein created a five-person Private School Funding Task Force — members included Duthler and then-lawyer Jim Prentice.
At the PC convention in fall 1997, party delegates actually voted to eliminate public funding for private schools.
Instead, the government chose to implement the task force’s recommendation and increase per-student private funding from 50 per cent of what public schools received, up to 60 per cent in 1998: equivalent to a $6.7 million annual increase. That meant that private schools received a 30 per cent hike in government funding between 1997 and 2000, while public schools only received a 6.8 per cent increase. In addition, the government chose not to introduce any limits on the amount of tuition a private school could charge.
Yet the Progressive Conservatives still weren’t content. In 2008, Ed Stelmach decided to increase the per-student percentage again, up to the 70 per cent that we still have with us today: now equivalent to about $5,200 per student.
Alberta now has the highest per-capita funding of private schools in the country at 70 per cent of public school students, compared to 60 per cent in Quebec, 50 per cent in B.C. and Manitoba and zero percent in Ontario. In total, Albertans just under $110 million a year million to subsidize non special-education private schools, with more than $27 million of that going to the “Elite 15” — private schools that charge over $10,000 a year in tuition.
These subsidies directly deprive public school systems of much-needed funds that could be spent to hire new teachers and build new classrooms and playgrounds. It’s quite simple: public money should be used for the public good. Especially when it involves our children.