Betsy DeVos would be thrilled to have a [school] system like yours,” says Diane Ravitch, research professor of education at New York University, about Alberta. Donald Trump’s secretary of education along with evangelicals and religious extremists in the US look to our province as the shining example of what a school system should be. “You already fund religious schools,” says Ravitch. “Already fund specialized charters that are based on discriminatory practices…. You’ve gone way, way past the American model.”
Now Alberta, under the Jason Kenney government, may be about to go even further. In November 2019, at the United Conservative Party AGM in Calgary, the Lacombe-Ponoka constituency association proposed Policy 15. One of several resolutions at that AGM that would influence education, Policy 15 was the most troubling. It called for the implementation of an education voucher that would, among other things, increase public funding to Alberta’s private schools.
Alberta is already unusual in providing public money to private schools; five provinces, including Ontario, give not one cent. And none of the other provinces that subsidize private schools do so to the extent Alberta does. The UCP’s proposed voucher would increase the per student public funding to Alberta’s private schools from 70 per cent of what public schools receive to 100 per cent. The shift would encourage more religious education, more segregation—and more inequality. As Calgary parent Dana Watson says: “Every voucher going to a charter or private pulls money out of the public system and widens the gap of haves and have-nots.”
Proponents of Policy 15 claimed that Alberta’s current education system doesn’t allow enough flexibility for parents and taxpayers dissatisfied with their current public school. They suggested that the current system, in which 92 per cent of Alberta students attend public schools (public, separate/Catholic, francophone or francophone separate), inadequately prepares students for adulthood and radicalizes them with extremist ideology.
Policy 15 passed after some debate. The final policy declaration reads:
“The United Conservative Party believes that the Government of Alberta should
a) ensure equitable per-student funding in accordance with school choice—public, separate, charter, home or private, and
b) implement an education ‘voucher system’ that will provide for equal per-student funding regardless of their school choice, free from caveats or conditions.”
In a voucher system, public dollars follow students to the school of their parents’ choice. The term “voucher” first came into the language of education policy in the 1980s. It was viewed as a way to strengthen parental (a.k.a. individual) rights. That decade—the era of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and free-market economics—saw major changes to political and economic systems, and these influenced education policy.
Economist Milton Friedman was one of the voucher’s first champions. As early as 1962, in Capitalism and Freedom, he proposed that “Parents who choose to send their children to private schools would be paid a sum equal to the estimated cost of educating a child in a public school, provided that at least this sum was spent on education in an approved school.” Friedman and other free-market promoters argued that widespread use of the voucher would result in a competitive market for education, as parents could pick and choose between all types of schools, whether private or public. Parents, promoters reasoned, should be free to spend their own money on top of what they receive from public funds. Just as an individual can choose to buy one consumer product or service over another, they argued that a competitive market for education would result in better schools for everyone.
This ideology of the free market has continued to guide politics and economics across North America and the globe. Bridget Stirling, a Ph.D. candidate and researcher in the University of Alberta’s Department of Educational Policy Studies, says framing education as a consumer purchase diminishes how public services are viewed by the wider society. “People [begin to] think of the state as a service provider, rather than government as something in which we all participate,” she says. Our language changes too, so that “we don’t think of these as public funds for the public good, but instead as tax dollars intended for the provision of service to individuals.”
Alberta was far from immune to the political and economic movements of the 1980s. In fact, the province became a testing ground for many of the concepts pushed by economists like Friedman. Following Ralph Klein’s election win in 1993, free-market ideology became entrenched in provincial public policy. At the time, Alberta was providing 40 per cent of the per pupil amount to private schools. In 1998 “King Ralph” raised private school funding to 60 per cent. In 2008 Ed Stelmach’s government raised it to 70 per cent.
Klein also went far beyond the norm with the introduction of charter schools in 1994. His rationale was to spur innovation and promote competition in the education system. Charters—then and now—receive the same level of per pupil funding as public schools, but are run by private parent or corporate boards. No other province in Canada even has charter schools.
Alexandre Da Costa, associate professor of educational policy studies at the University of Alberta, is concerned about the path our province has chosen. Our money-follows-the-student model “has numbed us to what ‘choice’ in education actually means,” he says. He argues that the forces of privatization, the school-choice movement and religious education have already undermined Alberta’s public schools and the wider society. The full voucher system proposed by Policy 15, he says, would just make things worse.
For example, he argues, private schools provide less democratic oversight. “Control is taken even more out of the hands of the public through further transfer of public goods into the hands of private entities,” Da Costa says. More education is overseen by unelected school boards, such as Strathcona Tweedsmuir’s 14-member board of governors (who implement the school motto Nil Nisi Optimum—“nothing but the best”). And more private and religious influence pervades the classroom (such as at Central Alberta Christian High School, where “…the foundation of Christian education must be based on truth as revealed in God’s infallible word”).
Ironically, the original claim used to justify charter schools to Albertans was that the choice they offered would not only inspire better results in the public system but also fend off private schools. The result in Alberta has been that schools are increasingly exclusive under both the public and private umbrella, and that privatization has only expanded.
Why does any of this matter? As Ravitch explains: “Because the American idea, at least until fairly recently, was that the public school was the common school, and the common school was for everybody. It was a way in which children of all different backgrounds and income levels would intermingle. And we were from so many diverse backgrounds and so many different ethnicities, not unlike Canada, frankly. But the idea was, it was a meeting ground for everyone. The way it was put in the 19th century was the child of the banker and the child of workman sit side by side and learn together.”
Erika Shaker, editor of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives publication Our Schools/Ourselves, argues that public education is fundamental to Canadian society. The role of government here has been to provide education funding through fair and progressive taxation. Public schools have helped prevent our society from becoming too divided along socioeconomic lines. Our public schools, she adds, “are committed to providing safe, supportive spaces where kids learn from educators and each other, and where differences are opportunities for engagement and building understanding, rather than excuses to divide [or maintain division].”
This doesn’t mean our system ignores individual needs, writes Shaker. “We require a balance between meeting the unique needs of kids while building social and emotional solidarity between them, within the larger project of education, [which includes] caring for the next generation and imagining how to make things better than they are now.”
Shaker is concerned that any public funding is diverted to private schools. She believes public funds should be used only for public schools, because “the moment a profit motive is introduced into education—or [into] anything we have determined to be a public good—it allows the funder to determine who, based on a return on the investment, is deserving of that funding and the service it provides.”
Indeed, commodifying a public good ensures that some citizens get left out. Students with higher needs, those who live in poverty or in remote communities and students from marginalized communities are a liability to the interests of what Shaker terms “efficient investment.” She warns that by providing even more money for private schools, “existing inequities will be enforced.”
Privatization promoters argue that choice and competition create greater equity. But Shaker says this is an empty promise. The evidence—widening income inequality in Canada over the past 30 years correlates with the spread of free market ideology—supports her.
In Alberta, until the 1990s at least, this idea of the common school, the place where children of all backgrounds could come together, was primarily achieved through the community public school. Back then, a community school was typically an Alberta student’s only choice. Since then, the spread of private and charter schools has increased the ways our communities segregate. “Choice in general has a segregating effect,” says Ravitch. “The more choice there is, the more people choose to be with people just like themselves.”
Some of the ways Albertans are choosing to be with people just like themselves include sending their children to schools organized around religion, ability or sport. These restrictions are segregating. And so many Alberta schools are now built around specific commonalities: hockey schools, arts schools, heritage schools, gifted schools, Christian or Jewish or Islamic schools.
Da Costa admits the options can be seductive. “I was initially so excited to see all this choice when I moved with my family to Edmonton in 2015,” he says. “But in the end, my experiences with other parents… have revealed to me how choice promotes not only more aggressive competition to get into the right programs but also a tremendous amount of anxiety among parents about researching, shopping around and choosing the right program.”
Jennifer Berkshire, education author, journalist and host of the education podcast Have You Heard, has observed the same phenomenon in the US, where public school systems try to be responsive to parental demands for more choice. “But the playing field isn’t equal to start with,” she says. “Particular kinds of programs are wildly popular with affluent parents. And so school districts will want to open a Montessori school, and if there’s an income divide in the community—which there always is—that program gets overrun by affluent white parents. Same with language immersion programs.”
Creating more and more choice has also become a way to satisfy religious communities’ desire to prioritize parental rights over children’s rights. Stirling says this instinct overlaps with a distinctly Albertan obsession over property rights. “It’s a connection between a libertarian thread in Alberta, which is [about] property rights and determining what happens with your tax dollars… and a confluence with primarily religious-conservative communities, who want to take their children out of public education because of the things a child might learn or be taught in that system.”
Ultimately, Ravitch says that granting more parental rights incrementally shifts the purpose of education away from the common good. “It’s about a mindset—either I fight for the common good or I fight for consumer choice.”
The UCP’s adoption of policy 15 doesn’t automatically mean the Kenney government will legislate its proposed voucher system and give full funding to Alberta’s private schools. But the trend in this province since the 1990s has been toward more and more funding to private schools, a relentless pursuit of greater choice, and a general disregard for the consequences of segregating students by income, religion, ability or interest.
Says parent Heather Ganshorn: “Vouchers contribute to the kind of class and race segregation that has increased polarization in the US and around the world.” She believes most Albertans would define the purpose of public education similarly to Ravitch’s banker’s son and workman’s son analogy. “Public schools are one of the only places where kids learn that not everyone shares their personal experiences, and that there are kids who are both better off and worse off than they are, kids with different belief systems or family structures. There is value to this experience for all of society, and I think government’s job should be to make funding choices that support the greater social good over the preferences of certain individuals.”
Carolyn Blasetti is the executive director of Support our Students and a former teacher in Calgary.