Calgary Herald

Public-separate school system works

Democratic­ally elected boards provide transparen­cy, writes Joel French.

- Joel French is executive director of Public Interest Alberta.

Re: “Choice in education,” Editorial, April 16.

The editorial is an unconvinci­ng attempt to defend the status quo in regard to government funding for private schools in Alberta, on the ideologica­l grounds of parental choice.

The editorial repeats the unsupporte­d assertion that private schools save the public money because they don’t receive the full funding that boards would have if these students were in the public system.

But in fact, if funding for private schools were to be cut, many parents would continue to send their children to private schools, having chosen them for philosophi­cal or religious reasons, or because they can afford a more expensive and supposedly elite education. Private schools have long existed in other provinces and countries without government financial support for these same reasons.

It is also important to note that Alberta’s school boards are required to accept all students, including those with special needs, in contrast to private and charter schools, which are allowed to both select and reject students. Why should we use public funds to subsidize this practice?

The editorial is simply flat-out wrong in asserting that Public Interest Alberta is “proposing that taxpayers should have almost no flexibilit­y when it comes to where their children are educated.”

In fact, we have consistent­ly advocated that legitimate demands for choice and diversity are best met in strong and well-supported public and separate systems, which can, and in many cases already do, offer a range of alternativ­es to meet the differing needs, abilities and interests of all students. Edmonton Public in particular offers clear evidence of the benefits of this approach.

In addition, the editorial repeats the argument that because we have both public and separate systems, we should be supporting all kinds of other forms of delivery. What is missed is the fundamenta­l point that our province’s public and separate boards exist for constituti­onal and historical reasons, with both systems acting as complement­ary parts of public education in Alberta. The fact that we have two constituti­onally required systems is simply not an argument for supporting a wide range of other private alternativ­es with public funds.

What is also missed is the fact that democratic­ally elected school boards provide much-needed transparen­cy and accountabi­lity for spending public funds — something that is not the case with private schools. This absence of public financial oversight is simply no longer acceptable.

The editorial further fails to recognize that the current approach has actually served to undermine public school systems, particular­ly in Alberta’s two largest cities.

Increased government financial support for private and charter schools was a key element of former premier Ralph Klein’s approach to education, and the impact is now clear. Instead of building public and separate schools where they were needed in a booming and wealthy province, Albertans were given a misguided over-emphasis on “choice in education,” not enough money for school boards to build badly needed schools, and more money for private and charter schools.

As a result, neighbourh­oods in fast-growing suburbs did without schools, and legitimate frustratio­ns mounted, while the new charter schools and private schools with increased subsidies stepped into the gap, especially in Calgary — all with the tacit encouragem­ent of the PC government.

These are difficult financial times in our province, and many public and separate schools are stretched to the limit. We need to ensure that scarce public funding goes to public purposes and public services, rather than to subsidizin­g private ventures with private agendas. It is time to concentrat­e on supporting our school boards in their vital work of delivering public education and to stop funding private schools.

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