The Debate over Public Funding for Private Schools
By Drew Chipman, Assistant Superintendent, Corporate Services
There has been quite a bit of back and forth in the news lately regarding public funding of private schools and whether or not the Government of Alberta should continue to provide them with funding. There are arguments on both sides of the issue: those arguing that it takes dollars away from public education and those stating that it saves money because if those students were in the public system they would be 100% funded vs. the 60 or 70% private schools receive. Another pro-private school funding argument is that private schools provide more “choice” and that taking away funding diminishes that option for families interested in a private school education for their children.
Private schools wishing to access provincial funding must fit within two different classes to qualify for provincial support: Level 1 funded private schools have to follow basic reporting requirements and government oversight to obtain 60% funding. Level 2 funded private schools agree to additional scrutiny by fully participating in the provincial accountability program and, once accepted as a Level 2 school must stay at that level in order to receive 70% funding.
So, how many students are attending private schools in Alberta? One report written in 2015 by Van Pelt, Nevins, Brown and Palacios1 revealed that in 2013 there were slightly less than 25,000 private school students out of more than 619,000 students, or 3.9% of the student population. This number, while not insignificant, is the second lowest of all but the Maritime provinces according to the same report. Between 2001-2013, private school attendance increased as a percentage of total student population in every province except Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick; this despite the fact that many of these provinces have not increased contributions to private schools.
In Alberta, private schools were funded at 50% of public school funding until 1998 when it was increased to 60%. In 2008, private schools received another increase to 70% for those schools agreeing to the Level 2 certification. In both instances, public schools and their boards had little input into the changes. Currently, the Alberta School Boards Association is asking the provincial government to redirect the approximately $248 million dollars paid to private schools into public education.
A website, www.ourkids.net, states that private schools in Alberta charge between $5,000 and $50,000 a year for tuition. If you look at what Foothills School Division receives from the province each year per student, approximately $10,900 through a variety of grants (based on our 2014/15 Audited Financial Statement), you can see that the addition of provincial funding (up to 70% of public school funding) can give private schools a significant leg up on what they have to spend per student compared to public schools.
Along with the fact that private schools receive provincial funding over and above tuition charged, it is important to note that private schools set the criteria for enrolment. For example, they can accept or turn away students with physical or learning disabilities. While public education in the province celebrates its diversity and the fact that we are inclusive of all students, the public, government and private sectors often compare our student results to those of our private school counterparts. It is not an “apples to apples” comparison.
The argument that if the government doesn’t provide funding to private schools those students will come back to the public systems and then the province will have to provide full funding for all 25,000 private schools students may seem to make sense on the surface. The reasoning goes on to say that if private students are added back into the system it will then reduce the amount of funding available per student across the province. However, if Ontario is any indication, this is certainly not the case. They have a significantly higher number of private schools and students (both in raw numbers and as a percentage of total student population) and yet they provide no provincial funding for private schools. One can surmise that those desiring a private school education for their children are not motivated by the amount of provincial funding private schools receive, or lack thereof.
Foothills School Division is certainly in favour of educational choice for students and families. However, we are not sure that choice means provincial funding for private schools should have to accompany that determination. In fact, FSD trustees recently passed a motion “in favour of a funding model that fully supports our public education system and does not diminish or erode funding from public education in Alberta.”
With all of this information in hand, perhaps it’s time that the Province reviewed its stance on the continued funding of private schools.