Should Private Schools Get Public Funding?

By Joel French and David Staples


Joel French, the executive director at Public Interest Alberta says no.

Our province has Canada’s most generous subsidies for private schools. Setting aside those private schools serving children with special needs, many of which fill gaps in our public systems, the Alberta government spends $110-million per year subsidizing private schools. This would be far better spent supporting students in public schools.

Parents enrolling children in private schools choose to opt out of their local public, Catholic or francophone system. They certainly have the right to do so, but they shouldn’t expect the public to fund that choice. Similarly, public funding makes library books available to anyone at no charge. Some people instead buy books from a bookstore, but they don’t expect the government to subsidize those purchases.

Supporters of public funding for private schools claim they save the government money. It would cost the government more if all students attended public schools. But not all private students would necessarily attend public schools if the subsidy were eliminated. Five other provinces don’t provide a single dollar in public funding, yet their private school attendance rate is similar to or higher than Alberta’s. Ontario, for example, stopped funding private schools in 2003, yet its private school enrolment rate, 5.6 per cent, is higher than our 4.4 per cent—despite Alberta paying 70 per cent of a student’s cost to attend.

Other information tells a similar story. In 2008 Alberta’s private school subsidies went from 60 per cent to 70 per cent of the equivalent operating cost per pupil for public schools, which should have meant higher enrolment in private schools. But the enrolment rate in private schools didn’t change.

Another argument is that parents should get to choose which school their tax dollars support. But public services aren’t designed as voucher systems. The whole idea of public services, especially in health and education, is for all of us to pool our money through our taxes to build the best services we can and make them available to all, free of charge. Funding private schools with public dollars violates that principle by removing money from the pool, taking away from the quality of education systems open to all.

Unlike public schools, private schools can exclude students. They create financial barriers through tuition and other fees and can reject students based on their own criteria, ensuring that already-privileged families are able to access education options not available to everyone else.

Subsidies to private schools also raise broader questions about using public funds to support private ventures, particularly in terms of transparency and accountability. Private bodies keep their decisions, financial and otherwise, behind closed doors. Public entities are subject to a much higher degree of scrutiny and democratic accountability.

In sum, the claimed benefits of public subsidies to private schools ring false and the downsides are clear. They don’t save citizens money; they prevent us from building the best school systems for all. And they spend public money with little transparency and accountability to the public. Alberta should stop providing public subsidies to private schools.

David Staples, the long-time Edmonton Journal writer says yes.

Not a month goes by without some school board, teachers’ group or progressive political organization calling for more than 30,000 Alberta school children to be defunded. What have these 30,000 students done so wrong that their basic funding in education should be axed? Their parents have chosen to send them to private schools, not public schools.

It’s worth noting that we taxpayers fund the education of private school students at a massive overall discount. The Alberta government provides $13,000 in funding for every child who goes to public school but just $5,200 for every one in a private school. The funding for private school students amounts to just $162-million per year out of a $9-billion education budget, but the Alberta Teachers’ Association and other groups argue that cutting private schools’ allocation would save the government enough money to reduce class sizes and public school fees.

Such goals have merit—but it’s not in the public interest to find that money by defunding students in private schools. In fact, the call to defund private schools is self-serving, unfair, smug, divisive and will weaken the entire educational system.

Why self-serving? Which business interest, including the ATA, doesn’t want to limit its competition? Private schools aren’t unionized.

Why unfair? Government isn’t for just some of us, it’s for all of us, including those who prefer to send their children to private schools. You may not like religious schools or snooty Calgary private schools, and I’m no fan of the elitism they represent, but we’re all citizens here, all taxpayers and all deserving of fair treatment. Getting a basic education and having the government pay for a fair portion is a basic right for all Alberta children, including those in private schools.

Why smug? If parents believe the needs of their child are best met at a private school, who is the ATA to say they are wrong? Is the ATA utterly certain that some kids don’t need the unique discipline, structure or educational approach that some private schools offer?

Why divisive? Right now every wealthy Albertan who sends their child to private school has a stake in the public system because they get that public funding. If you eliminate that funding, you create a huge number of ticked off, influential people with no stake in the public system who will immediately start pushing to defund public education.

A big part of Alberta’s educational success story has to do with the competition that comes with open school boundaries and programs of choice in the public system, as well as the threat of students taking their funding to a private school. This accountability and competition creates tension. It means public school teachers and administrators can never rest easy. But nor should they. They should always have to strive to do better. Some public school teachers and administrators might not appreciate the stress that comes with accountability and competition, but these aspects are part of the unique blend that has pushed Alberta schools to the top.

Joel French responds to David Staples:

Some perspective is required to understand why David Staples’s arguments in favour of continuing Alberta’s generous public subsidies to private schools hold little weight.

The most critical fact Staples ignores, and which refutes most of his points, is that reducing or eliminating those subsidies would have little to no effect on how many students attend private schools. Ample other Canadian jurisdictions can be used for comparison—namely the five provinces that don’t provide a single dollar in public subsidies to private schools. The rate of student enrolment in private schools simply is not correlated in any way to the amount of public funding they receive.

Subsidizing private schools, therefore, is not a “discount” as Staples claims, but an extra expense. It is perhaps the starkest example of wasteful spending by our provincial government, one that is particularly significant when our province has such a large shortage of tax revenue.

Staples might not think $162-million per year is a lot of money, but there are plenty of ways those dollars could improve education in our public schools. The NDP government’s 2015 election platform promised a $75-million increase in annual funding to reduce class sizes and increase classroom supports, and they have not followed through on that promise. Alberta’s Commission on Learning, back in 2003, recommended class size targets, and many school boards remain unable to meet them without more school buildings and the teachers and support staff they require. Recent reductions in government’s capital spending also mean that maintenance of our existing school infrastructure is being deferred until the province has more money.

Any public spending decision involves tradeoffs; providing funding for private schools means not spending that money in other areas, particularly when resources are scarce. Clearly, those dollars are needed in our public school systems.

Staples’s argument also fails to recognize how public services work. Effective public services require citizens to build the best systems we can and to make them accessible to everyone at no cost. Every family deserves a great public school in or near their community. Canadian provinces do this well with systems of hospital care. We don’t parcel out bundles of money for people to go hospital-shopping. Likewise, most Albertans don’t want enrolling their kids in a good school to be a shopping exercise.

Private schools neither save Alberta money nor improve public schools through competition.

At the end of his statement, Staples mentions the central importance of accountability. In fact, our public schools have strong systems of transparency and accountability that are simply not possible with private models. This is particularly important when we’re talking about the proper use of public funds. School boards are elected by the public, have public meetings and deliver publicly available budgets that citizens and media can scrutinize, and elected trustees must face voters every four years to defend decisions they’ve made if they want to continue in those roles.

Staples finishes his article with a claim that the competition of private schools is what has “pushed Alberta schools to the top,” but provides no evidence to support his assertion. Even on the surface, the argument simply fails to hold up; private schools serve only 4 per cent of the student population, and many of them are small, faith-based schools that are chosen by parents for religious reasons.

The reasons for Alberta’s educational success have nothing to do with competition from private schools and everything to do with highly qualified teachers with high standards and ongoing professional development working in effective and accountable schools supported by parents, communities, excellent support staff and democratically elected school boards.

Parents should be able to choose whether or not to send their children to private  schools, and no one is calling for that choice to be taken away. But public funds should be used for public services, and the public funding of private schools should end. Public schools will continue to serve 95 per cent of Alberta families, and the rest will continue to attend private schools of various sorts, regardless of the level of public funding.

Staples suggests that phasing out subsidies to private schools will create a “huge number of ticked off” Albertans. Four per cent is hardly a “huge” amount, and a far larger number of parents with children in public schools are already ticked off that the province isn’t sufficiently funding their classrooms. That includes unsupported or under-supported special needs in many public school classrooms.

The claimed benefits of saving Albertans money and competing with public schools to improve the quality of education are either unsupported or contradicted by the evidence. In the end, Staples’s support for private school subsidies seem to be based on ideology—he favours the policy because he believes in market-based systems. And that is simply not a compelling argument for this important public policy decision.

Fortunately, most Albertans support our universal public services, including our healthcare and education systems, and support focusing our public dollars on building the best public services we can. That principle requires us to phase out Alberta’s generous system of public subsidies to private schools and use those dollars to make our fine public education system even better.

David Staples responds to Joel French:

We are getting a lot right in Alberta when it comes to public education. I’m sure Joel French and I would agree on that. Where we disagree is on a change that would fundamentally alter an educational funding model that serves us and children well.

Right now Alberta’s most privileged children and most vulnerable children get a solid education. This should surprise no one. Our system was built in the last decades of the 20th century with a major focus on high standards and sound teaching practice, a rigorous curriculum packed with knowledge, and both transparency and accountability, which flow out of provincial exams and a funding model that emphasizes parental choice.

Just how strong is the system? The most recent results from the world’s most important educational assessment—the 2015 results in science, reading and math from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)—show that in science education Alberta students ranked first in Canada and second out of 72 countries or economies in the world. Albertans ranked third in the world in reading. The only area where we lag behind is in math, but that’s no coincidence as that’s the one subject area where a decade ago we moved away from a rigorous curriculum and sound teaching practice.

With such high achievement, it would be prudent to not mess with success. And, make no mistake, the effort to get extra funds for public schools by defunding 30,000 private school students would almost certainly weaken the entire system.

So far in Alberta we’ve avoided the divisive and counter-productive class struggle that marks school funding in the US. The rich there fight to keep taxes low and to limit public education funding. They believe they have little stake in a system that doesn’t fund their own children in private schools, so the battle rages. But in Alberta we’ve avoided that fight, as all students benefit from our current formula. If we axe funding to students who attend private schools, it will force students from those schools’ poorer families into the public system. The wealthiest students will remain private, but their parents will quite rightly feel betrayed. After all, they pay high taxes and their children deserve to be educated. Will their support for public education take a major hit? I suspect so.

Improved performance flows out of close scrutiny of institutions, which private schools get both from government and from parents, who pay the bills, but also owes to competition. What better way to keep a massive and often opaque public system striving to do its best than to maintain the possibility that if it fails a student, parents can choose to send that child and a portion of her funding elsewhere?

Our high achievement—in public and private systems—owes to close scrutiny and competition.

French compares the funding of private school students to the decision to either buy a book at a store or take out a book from a public library. But the education of a child is a far more serious matter than a consumer choice. Parents sweat, strain and work for their children. The education of their children is a matter they take with utmost seriousness.

We have come to recognize that in some cases there’s no better option for a child than for her to attend a private school that will meet some need the public school system cannot meet. This realization respects parents’ most considered and deeply held convictions about what is best for their child.

In the push to defund private school students, many advocates stress an economic argument—that those funds could be better used on public school students. But the defunding movement is also animated by a more general distrust of school choice. Some advocate against school choice and private school funding because they believe it segregates our children and promotes inequality and division. This distrust was most boldly expressed by an influential Alberta educational lobby group, Support Our Students Alberta (SOS), after the neo-Nazi rally in Virginia last summer. SOS wrote on Facebook: “Yesterday’s tragic events in Charlottesville re-emphasize for us why we cannot afford to segregate our children. Not by class, not by race, not by culture, religion, not by ability.”

SOS then listed a number of alternative programs which they said represented “segregation disguised as choice.” Such “segregated” schools include sports, ballet and hockey programs, numerous bilingual programs, Cogito, Montessori, international baccalaureate, Nellie McClung and Caraway academic programs, Logos and Christian schools, performing arts schools, and a number of alternative and private schools.

Such distrust in school choice is misplaced. No school system in the world has had more respect for the choices of parents than Edmonton’s. It has had open boundaries and programs of choice for decades now in the public system, as well as charter and private schools with government-funded students. If you believe there’s a link between school choice and intolerance, Edmonton has been a radical test tube experiment for what happens to a society with rampant school choice. But in the past few decades Edmonton has become a hotbed of caring and compassion and belief in government intervention, at least if you go by the politicians we elect.

There’s no reason to fear school choice, and our system emphasizing parent choice isn’t close to being broken. In fact, it’s a model for how education systems around the world should conduct business.

Joel French is the executive director at Public Interest Alberta. David Staples is a long time Edmonton Journal writer.


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