Never let a good budget crisis go to waste. That must be why various labour groups have banded together to demand the end of private school funding.
Facing a record-high deficit, Alberta’s NDP government is under considerable pressure to reduce costs without jeopardizing core services. Public Interest Alberta (PIA), a labour-supported advocacy group, thinks it has found the perfect solution. It wants the government to eliminate the $248 million it provides to private schools and reallocate this money to public schools.
By doing this, PIA argues, public boards will be able to reduce class sizes, cut school fees, increase classroom supports, and introduce school lunch programs. In a striking coincidence, each of these items happens to coincide with an NDP campaign promise.
However, there are good reasons to reject cutting private school funding. An extra $248 million to public school boards sounds like a lot — until we remember total public school funding in 2016-17 will be about $7.2 billion. Basic math tells us $248 million adds a mere 3.4 per cent to the total education budget.
PIA would have government disrupt the education of thousands of students in accredited private schools with long-standing funding arrangements with the province for the sake of increasing public school board budgets by 3.4 per cent. Anyone who thinks this is enough money to transform public education needs to remember this expenditure would barely make a dent in class sizes, let alone anything else PIA would like to see happen.
It gets worse when we realize private schools actually save the province a lot of money. While government provides partial funding for the operating costs of accredited private schools, it does not pay for capital costs. This year alone, the total capital costs for public schools amount to $1.8 billion over and above the $7.2 billion in operational costs.
If all 29,000 students currently enrolled in private schools transferred to the public system, school boards would undoubtedly need to construct new classrooms and possibly even new schools. All the capital funds would need to come straight from the province, putting even more pressure on the provincial budget.
Furthermore, per-student funding to private schools amounts to only about $5,200 per student, in contrast with the approximately $11,000 per student in public schools. Transferring all 29,000 private school students to public schools would cost the government $168 million each year since the province would now be on the hook for an extra $5,800 for each student. If PIA is worried about large class sizes now, it had better be prepared for even bigger classes should their proposal be adopted by the Alberta government.
Private school funding is an easy target for labour groups like PIA because, at first glance, it appears unfair for government to subsidize parents who send their children to private schools. After all, they argue, if parents want an elite education for their children, they should pay for it themselves.
The problem with this reasoning is it portrays the funding as a subsidy to private schools rather than as support to parents who choose a different educational option for their children. In other words, the money should simply follow the student. All Alberta families pay school taxes and are entitled to receive some benefit from the taxes they pay, especially when they enrol their children in schools that teach the Alberta curriculum and hire certified teachers.
It is both surprising and disappointing the Edmonton Public Schools board has joined PIA in its request to cut private school funding. For nearly 40 years, the board has led the way in promoting school choice. Students in Edmonton have a wide variety of options to choose from and this long-standing flexibility has been largely responsible for the relatively small number of private schools in Edmonton.
Thus, if public school boards are concerned about the proliferation of private schools, they should follow Edmonton’s example and provide more options. Providing parents with more choices is always a better approach than curtailing the choices they currently have.
There is little to be gained from chopping private school funding and much to be lost. Hopefully the Alberta government is wise enough to reject this short-sighted proposal.