PROTECT PUBLIC EDUCATION FROM THE MARKET AGENDA: Respond to the Alberta government’s “choice in education” survey
The government asked Albertans for input on plans for legislation to “protect and enhance education choice within Alberta’s education system.”
“Choice” is a powerful concept. We all want to make our own choices and be in control of our own lives. But the rhetoric of “choice” as it relates to our public services conceals an ulterior motive under its façade of empowerment – one of privatization and removing public funding in favour of private and individualized programs, which erode our ability to collectively provide universal access to high-quality education for all children.
After all, when the government is seeking to enshrine the “right to choose” for students to go to exclusive private schools where the tuition for one child can be more than some people earn in a year, all while the province provides those private schools 70% of the funding it does to the public system, whose “choice” are they prioritizing? It is certainly not the “choices” of working families who don’t get the right to access high-quality education for their children at their nearby neighbourhood school because of increasingly underfunded classrooms.
Instead, we need to reject the purposefully vague but appealing term “choice” and recognize it for what it really is: a “market agenda” with an underpinning free market ideology of increasing competition, system fragmentation, and out-of-pocket costs for education, which instead should be a universal public good, focused on children and their needs.
Promoting this market agenda in education weakens the public system through slowly transferring components of this essential public service into private hands. This ideology has become a rationale for a range of policies and programs that have had the effects of strengthening private alternatives that use public funds to compete with public education, and have further undermined public education by diverting scarce public dollars away from our public, separate, and francophone schools. And within our public schools, this market agenda also appears in the form of some specialty programs with very high fees and exclusive criteria, effectively creating private schools within the public system.
The Alberta public should be highly skeptical of these competition and market-based directions and should see them for what they really are – using public funding to promote private and wealthy interests at the expense of quality public education that should be accessible to all Alberta families.
In responding to this survey, we need to recognize that the government purposefully slanted the questionnaire to give them the answers that they wanted. Their goal is to further the market agenda of privatization and to further weaken and fragment our public educational system. We need to go in a very different direction if we want to genuinely improve the ability of our schools to meet the educational needs of all children in these complex and challenging times.
The actions needed:
- Advise your MLA and the Minister of Education of your concerns.
- Encourage others to take advantage of this opportunity to strengthen public education and resist further efforts that would undermine it.
- Stay in touch with us for developments as we continue to defend public education against the market agenda.
In this backgrounder, we will explore four ways that the market agenda is undermining public education and driving fragmentation, competition, and increased out-of-pocket costs in our education system, rather than strengthening a high-quality universal public system: charter schools, private schools, home schooling, and some alternative programs within public schools.
Charter schools are the most egregious form of the market agenda in Alberta education, as they are in essence private schools masquerading as public schools.
Alberta is the only province in Canada to have established the divisive American model of charter schools; they were started here 1994 as an “experiment,” and were limited to fifteen in number. The original justification was that they would focus on alternative approaches that could provide insights to public systems, which simply has not happened. The UCP government has now taken the cap off, and we face the threat of an unlimited expansion of this highly problematic approach.
The key concern is that charter schools are fully funded by public dollars, and yet are allowed to function essentially as private schools – they can choose (and reject) students, and are not subject to the crucial accountability and control elements of democratically-elected school boards. They are free to serve private interests, with full public dollars.
There is simply no good reason for charter schools to exist in Alberta. Rather than expanding this privatizing direction, we should terminate the experiment with charter schools, and give the much-needed funding to our public systems.
Private schools in Alberta are funded by public dollars at the highest level in Canada (at 70% of the base funding given to public systems.) This funding amounted to $286 million in 2018-19.
Provinces such as Ontario give no funding at all to private schools (and private schools in Ontario are clearly thriving without public funding, with nearly one thousand private schools operating there).
This funding also goes to Alberta’s most elite private schools, some of which charge as much as $20,000 per student annually. Why are public dollars going to subsidize these schools, particularly when our public school systems are increasingly starved of funding?
These private schools are able to select and reject students, and are not subject to the accountability measures, oversight, and directions from democratically-elected school boards. Parents have the right to send their children to private schools – but they do not have a corresponding right to have that decision paid for from the public purse.
Rather than expand supports for private schools, the Alberta government should phase out all funding for private schools, and should re-direct the funds to our public systems to better meet the needs of all children. This redirection of funds should include providing in public schools the high levels of support to children with special needs that the current system often forces them to access through private schools.
Public support for home schooling is another area of concern in the discussion around the fragmentation of public dollars into individualized programs in accordance with the market agenda.
While parents may have a right to opt out of public education under some conditions, that is not an unconditional right - children have a right to an education as well, and that right must be protected. And once again, if one opts out of public education in this manner, that should definitely not imply a right to having the public foot the bill.
Instead of expanding support for home schooling, the government should phase out all funding for home schooling and reassign that funding to public systems, and should strengthen the protections for a comprehensive and effective education for children who are home schooled.
Instead of expanding alternative programs within public school systems, the government should re-examine them in the light of the principles of free and equitable public education, to ensure they are not based on the market agenda and do not increase barriers to full participation.
More specifically, public education is to be free, accessible to and accepting of all, focused on developing the full potential of all children, and democratically accountable (in Alberta, through elected school boards). In that light, has a proliferation of alternative programs and schools within some public systems had the effect of undermining some of these key principles?
Some public schools with specialized programs come with high school fees, which means that they are only accessible to those who can afford them. Is this consistent with the principles of public education? In trying to meet these needs within public systems, are we not in reality offering a form of private schools acting as public schools? And if so, why not simply have them become private schools?
Moreover, these specialized programs have many of the features of a back-door voucher system, long favoured by conservative forces in the United States, despite fierce resistance by public education advocates.
When students can be excluded by imposing entrance requirements, charging substantial fees, or not providing transportation, then such programs are not operating in accordance with the values of public education. Rather, they are operating as private schools within the public system, and such exclusivity simply does not belong in a public school.
We need to urge the government to reject the mantra of the market agenda and competition in our education system and concentrate instead on directions that will genuinely make a positive difference in our classrooms and in our ability to meet the complex needs of an increasingly diverse population in Alberta’s schools.
The tired, ideological, market approach of fostering competition and privatization is simply inappropriate to educating children. The result will be yet more undermining of public education and more inequities in children’s education and achievement.
A genuinely effective approach will instead:
- enhance supports for the work that our teachers and support staff do with children in our schools
- present policies to foster more equity, accessibility, effectiveness and democratic accountability
- deal directly with the problem of large class sizes and the increasingly complex needs of children in those classrooms
- require a commitment by government to substantially increase (rather than freeze and cut) funding to our public school systems to help them develop the full potential of all of our children, and to better fulfill the promise of public education.
I want to stay in touch with Public Interest Alberta and their allies to defend public education from the market agenda.
In the lead up to the 2019 provincial election, issues related to the province’s economy have been the highest priority for both of the major political parties and have therefore dominated media coverage and the overall public conversation. However, as our Executive Director Joel French wrote in a blog post, "If the goal is to move Alberta forward, not backward, then public services need to be at the heart of the campaign."
Albertans value their public services, and they need to be strengthened. Services like health care, early learning and child care, care for Alberta's seniors, the public education system, and our post secondary system are vital to a thriving and healthy society.
We interviewed activists and advocates from across the province to learn more about the issues, and to hear the concerns of citizens of our province.
On January 16th, 2019, Public Interest Alberta held a press conference at Jasper Place Child Care & Family Resource Centre to release the summary of our 2018 Child Care Survey, which focused on studying the outcomes of the government's $25-a-day child care pilot program. The results are clear: the program is a success. We need universal child care so families are fully supported in the care and development of their children.
What are key issues in health care affecting seniors this upcoming election? Public Interest Alberta and Friends of Medicare held a citizens' forum in Red Deer to talk about critical issues facing Albertan seniors and their families like the need for universal pharmaceutical coverage, expanded capacity and staffing in our hospitals, and major improvements in our seniors' care system. Our government must invest in improvements to care for our province's system because Alberta Seniors Deserve Better.
Classroom conditions are the central issue for K-12 education in Alberta’s election. Voters need to hold political parties to a high standard, demanding that they take action to reduce class sizes and increase classroom supports. Public Interest Alberta recently held a citizens’ forum in Edmonton at the Alberta Teachers' Association to address these important issues.
Post-secondary education is the answer to many of Alberta’s challenges, including our transition to a more stable and diversified economy. To meet those challenges, we need a stronger system that is higher quality, more affordable, and more accessible. Public Interest Alberta recently interviewed students, faculty, and staff at the University of Alberta to get their thoughts on how to address those issues.
Public Interest Alberta joined 18 other organizations in calling on the Government of Alberta to:
1. In Budget 2018, reduce public funding to private schools from 70% to 50% (with the exception of special needs schools).
2. Re-allocate the $30 million in savings to fund a classroom conditions improvement project in select Public, Catholic, and Francophone schools.
This call to reduce public funding to private schools would be the first step towards completely phasing out this funding over a three year period. Please see our previous media release from 2017 for more details.
- Public Interest Alberta
- Progress Alberta
- Alberta Teachers’ Association
- Public School Boards Association of Alberta
- Edmonton Public School Board
- Support Our Students (SOS) Alberta
- Calgary and District Labour Council
- Edmonton and District Labour Council
- Edmonton Catholic Teachers
- Edmonton Public Teachers
- Calgary Board of Education Staff Association
- Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Alberta
- CUPE Alberta Education Employees Committee
- CUPE Local 40 (Calgary Board of Education staff)
- CUPE Local 474 (custodial staff for Edmonton Public Schools)
- CUPE Local 1099 (St. Albert Public Schools support staff)
- CUPE Local 3550 (support staff for Edmonton Public Schools)
- CUPE Local 4625 (Sturgeon Public Schools support staff)
- Unifor Local 52A (support staff for Edmonton Catholic Schools)
Public Interest Alberta and partners in the news
Public school proponents push for cut in funding to Alberta private schools by Janet French, Edmonton Journal
Joel French interview on CBC Radio CBC Radio Active with Portia Clark
Une coalition demande à l'Alberta de réduire ses subventions aux écoles privées Radio-Canada/ICI Alberta
ATA joins call to scale back private school funding by Jen Janzen, ATA News
Should Private Schools Get Public Funding? by Joel French and David Staples, Alberta Views magazine
Think-tank calls for increased private school enrolment in Alberta by Janet French, Edmonton Journal
Public Interest Alberta and the University of Alberta's Dr. Kristopher Wells have released Progress Report on LGBTQ Policies of Four Alberta School Boards (download the full report).
This work builds on our previous work with Dr. Wells, Making the Grade: An analysis of sexual orientation and gender identity policies in Alberta.
Our organization has been supportive of efforts to ensure that the policies and guidelines of all of Alberta's 61 school boards fully reflect the requirements of recent provincial legislation with regard to sexual and gender minorities (LGBTQ), and in particular the changes mandated by Bills 10 and 24. The provincial government originally required school boards to submit their policies in this area by March 31, 2018. These policies must be made publicly available by June 30, 2018.
As an interim measure, Dr. Kristopher Wells was asked by Public Interest Alberta to evaluate the current policies of four school boards, two each from public and Catholic school systems:
- Westwind School Division #74
- Christ the Redeemer Catholic Schools
- Edmonton Catholic Separate School District No. 7
- Buffalo Trail Public Schools
The purpose of the project is not to generalize about the policies of the remaining boards on the basis of these four, but rather to analyze in detail the specific policies of these four boards in order to determine the nature and extent to which they currently meet the expectations of the legislation, and the kinds of changes that will be necessary in the near future as a result.
Our ultimate goal is to contribute to a process that will ensure all 61 boards have exemplary policies and guidelines which meet the legal requirements of government and, in turn, actively welcome, support, and affirm LGBTQ students, staff, and families as a full and valued part of the school community.
Public Interest Alberta in the news
School LGBTQ policies out of step with School Act changes, advocacy group says by Janet French, Edmonton Journal
Alberta school boards face steep climb to support LGBTQ students: Report by Kevin Maiman, Metro News
Deadline for LGBTQ school policy approaches by Susan Zielinski, Red Deer Advocate
Public Interest Alberta released a report on how school board policies need to change to support LGBTQ students, staff and families Danielle Smith radio show (News Talk 770)
Some school boards falling behind on protecting sexual minority students by Dave Cournoyer, Daveberta.ca
This post was revised as of August 31, 2016 at 4:30pm
Public Interest Alberta and the University of Alberta’s Dr. Kristopher Wells, Assistant Professor, Department of Educational Policy Studies have released Making the Grade, an analysis of four Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) policies that school boards have submitted to Alberta Education. Read the press release here. Read a detailed analysis of each of these four Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity policies, here.
- School boards and private schools to improve policies to “make the grade”
- If school boards and private schools are unwilling to bring their policies up to an A+ standard, the Minister of Education should introduce legislation to ensure all students are supported and protected.
- Policies must be made easily accessible to the public either on school boards’ websites or posted in one place by Alberta Education. Students, staff, and families deserve to know what supports and protections are in place in their schools.
Dr. Wells used the following criteria in his analysis of the four Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) policies:
1. District has a specific/standalone sexual orientation and gender identity policy, procedure and/or resources
Policy is publicly available and easily accessible on district website
2. Policy complies with provincial legislation
- Is in compliance with Bill 10 and Alberta’s human rights legislation
- Includes specific protections for sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression
- Includes specific support for students to start a gay-straight alliance/queer-straight alliance, and name it as such
3. Clearly addresses the needs of sexual and gender minority (LGBTQ) students, staff, and families
4. Provides specific supports for transgender and non-binary students
- Includes clear provisions for washrooms, student records, athletics, locker rooms, field trips etc.
5. Protects student confidentiality and privacy
- Is in compliance with Alberta’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act
6. Imposes no special requirements/additional constraints
- Parental permission/notification is not required to attend a gay-straight alliance or queer-straight alliance meeting
- GSAs/QSAs are not subject to special requirements or approvals that are not applied equally to other student clubs in a school (i.e. Limited to certain grade levels, or require principal to approve speakers, materials or activities used in the club)
Revised as of August 31, 2016 4:30pm
Revised as of August 31, 2016 4:30pm
Revised as of August 31, 2016 4:30pm
Revised as of August 31, 2016 4:30pm
Read a detailed analysis of each of these four SOGI policies, here.
Private Schools in Alberta
Alberta Education offers the following description of private schools:
The Government of Alberta recognizes that parents have the right to choose a private school for their children and has provided financial support for private schools since 1967. There are over 250 private schools and private Early Childhood Service providers in Alberta.
The School Act, Section 28, authorizes two kinds of private schools to operate in Alberta:
registered private schools and accredited private schools … There are three categories of accredited private schools. [Accredited Non-funded, Accredited Funded, and Designated Special Education Private Schools.]
Accredited funded are entitled to partial provincial funding for meeting educational standards… Students write the provincial tests and are taught the Alberta Programs of Study by Alberta certificated teachers. Schools receive either Level 1 or Level 2 funding, as per the Funding Manual. [Accredited funded schools receive 60 to 70% of base funding]
Questions and Answers re Private Schools (Alberta Education)
Can a private school operator refuse to enrol my child? Yes. A private school operator can refuse to enroll a student. This is because the School Act does not require private school operators to provide education programs to every student.
Do private school operators offer special education programs?
Private school operators are not required to admit students with special needs. However, once an accredited funded private school enrolls a student with special education needs, Alberta Education requires the private school operator to provide appropriate education programming for that student for the school year in which that student is enrolled.
If I’m not happy with a decision made by the private school operator, can I ask the Minister of Education to review that decision? Parents do not have the right, under section 124 of the School Act, to ask the Minister of Education to review a private school operator’s decision. Private school operators are encouraged to establish appeal mechanisms for parents of children enrolled in their schools.
Reasons for ending funding for private schools in Alberta
“Public boards are being strapped a bit for cash and we’re trying to do more with less,” said Helen Clease, who was elected to a two-year term as ASBA president at the organization’s fall general meeting this week.
“We don’t have an issue with there being private schools,” Clease added. “But we believe that the public dollars should go to public schools where every child can have access to that education.”
The policy, which was supported by 71 per cent of the 62 public and separate school boards represented by ASBA, calls for public funding currently provided to private schools be reallocated to public education, with the exception of designated special education private schools.
“At a time where every bit would help in the public education system, whether it’s substantial or not, I think we have to support public education,” said Clease.
“We’re there to take every child and we have to make sure that we can meet many, many diverse needs with our children in our communities,” she added.
David Howell, “Private school funds under fire,” Calgary Herald, Nov. 21, 2013
Charter schools in Alberta
Alberta Education describes charter schools as follows:
- Charter schools are autonomous non-profit public schools designed to provide innovative or enhanced education programs that improve the acquisition of student skills, attitudes and knowledge in some measurable way.
- Charter schools meet the needs of a particular group of students through a specific program or teaching/learning approach while following Alberta Education's Program of Studies.
- Alberta’s 13 charter schools occupy 23 school buildings, 20 of which are owned by school districts, mainly in Calgary and Edmonton.
Reasons for ending support for charter schools in Alberta
“Alberta is the only Canadian province that funds charter schools, which are generally defined as ‘alternative’ schools that receive government money but are really just private schools that are subsidized by taxpayers.
There's a good reason we’re alone on this. It's a bad policy that takes money from taxpayers to bankroll often dubious and poorly monitored specialty programs, many of which cherry-pick students on such grounds as how likely they are to succeed and how much money their parents have. Practically speaking, it also takes money away from public education.
Alberta's charter schools, which often try to deny their teachers fair pay and union representation, continue to receive the full per-student grant provided to public and separate schools.”
David Climenhaga, AlbertaPolitics.ca, April 3, 2016
Alberta Student Population by Authority System
|School Authority System||2011/2012||2012/2013||2013/2014||2014/2015||2015/2016|
|ECS Private Operator||4165||4617||5062||5291||5688|
|Federal - First Nations||9631||10007||10266||9836||9695|
|All School & Authorities||619228||638768||657811||676332||690844|
Source: Alberta Education