Over $29 million in public funds diverted to elite private schools every year

While Alberta's public schools struggle under a lack of resources, seventeen elite private schools -- each charging over $10,000 a year in tuition -- are taking over $29 million a year in public funding

Six new or modernized schools, 116 new playgrounds or 290 new teachers.

That’s what Alberta’s public education system could immediately gain if we stopped subsidizing the 17 most elite private schools — schools that charge over $10,000 in tuition per student — with $29.1 million dollars of public funds each year.

Published on February 14, 2018

“We’re wasting money on subsidizing a private choice,” said Joel French, executive director of Public Interest Alberta. “We don’t do that in other areas. If somebody doesn’t want to use a public library, we don’t write them a cheque from the government to go buy a book.

These highly exclusionary elite private schools are all located in or near Calgary, and include Strathcona-Tweedsmuir (up to $22,285/year), Webber Academy ($18,800/year), Rundle College (up to $17,625/year), the Edge School for Athletes (up to $18,270/year) and West Island College ($16,120/year).

And those annual tuition rates don’t even include enrolment deposits, one-time payments required for acceptance at some schools, which range from $6,000 at Webber Academy to $7,000 at West Island College (made up of a $3,500 “family membership” and $3,500 “capital improvement fee”) to a $1,500 “family initiation fee” at Calgary Waldorf School.

These elite private schools are inaccessible to a vast majority of Albertan families.

Yet the government continues to fund them at a per-student rate of 70 per cent compared to public, separate and Francophone students — making it the most heavily subsidized private school system in the country.

Image: Clear Water Academy, an elite private school“Part of the problem is that as the private school sector grows, then parents become even more unwilling to pay taxes because they say they’re ‘doing us a favour’ and ‘why don’t we do them a favour and lower their taxes?’” said Trevor Harrison, professor of sociology at the University of Lethbridge, in an interview with Progress Alberta. “It’s hard to know where the plateau level is, but at some point the balance of power shifts so much that suddenly the public system just doesn't have enough funding. That’s the really dangerous point.”

Class sizes in Alberta’s public, separate and Francophone schools continue to bulge well past recommended guidelines.

That’s especially the case for kindergarten to Grade 3 classes. The 2003 report by Alberta’s Commission on Learning that set the guidelines still used today for class sizes recommended 17 students in each K-3 class. Yet Calgary’s public school district has an average class K-3 size of 19.9 students. And Edmonton’s is even worse: 22.2 students per class.

Higher grade levels often don’t fare any better. Red Deer’s public school district has an average of 25.2 students in Grade 4 to Grade 6 classes — that number should be kept at or below 23, according to the guidelines. And Calgary’s public high schools have 29.1 students per class, well over the advised mark of 27.

The report by Alberta’s Commission on Learning emphasized that the numbers were guidelines, not fixed metrics. But it also wrote that it “feels strongly that province-wide class size guidelines are critical for the early grades,” noting that reducing class sizes for K-3 class rooms has discernible academic benefits, especially for poor and minority children. Furthermore, it reported that inadequate funding and class sizes were the two most serious concerns voiced by Albertans during the commission’s consultations.

These are issues that have only been exacerbated in recent years, as inflation and population growth have eaten away at existing funding frameworks. Between 2009 and 2017, the population of students in Alberta increased by 16 per cent — but the number of teachers only grew by seven per cent. Recent investments by the Alberta government has helped. But more is needed.

There’s one very obvious way to help fix this: redirect the $29.1 million that is currently subsidizing elite private schools into the public system, helping to fund new schools, teachers and classrooms for regular Albertan kids.

This would play a significant role in ensuring that children from all backgrounds have the same opportunity to learn in classrooms with recommended sizes and opportunities to interact with teachers and support staff.

It would also ensure that education is actually properly regulated and inclusive of students from all backgrounds. In 2015, Webber Academy — one of the most elite private schools in the province — was fined $26,000 by the Alberta Human Rights Commission for refusing to allow two 14-year-old Muslim boys to pray on campus grounds. It fought the decision multiple times. Last year, school founder Neil Webber said the school “hasn’t changed a thing” because of the ruling. Meanwhile, some private schools have publicly opposed gay-straight alliances, while others have been temporarily shut down for lack of transparency about funding.

Schools are supposed to be places where kids of all socioeconomic and religious backgrounds can learn in safe and accessible environments. Elite private schools are the farthest thing imaginable from that goal. Let’s defund them, redirect the money to public education and build a more equal and progressive Alberta.