No gain, lots of pain from cutting private school funding

March 8, 2017

Published in the Edmonton Journal

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.

Money should follow the student

Originally published by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy on January 12, 2012. Original Link

The recent Saskatchewan government decision to extend provincial funding to independent schools brings Saskatchewan in line with the practice in the three other western provinces. Saskatchewan independent schools are now eligible for funding equivalent to 50% of the provincial per-student average, provided they follow the provincial curriculum and hire certified teachers.

The recent Globe and Mail editorial criticizing this decision argued that funding independent schools emphasizes separateness rather than diversity. It raised the specter of John Tory’s disastrous 2007 election campaign pledge to fund independent Ontario schools and ominously warned that the general public is worried about any policies that appear to promote segregation.

However, such criticisms overlook the fact that some level of funding for independent schools is already well-established in Canada. Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Alberta provide 100% funding to their separate (Roman Catholic) school boards. These arrangements are entrenched in our Constitution. Combine this with the partial funding available to independent schools in British Columbia, Alberta, and Manitoba, and it is obvious that some provinces do not limit their education funding to public schools alone.

Opposition to provincial funding for independent schools tends to share three key points. The first is that many independent schools are faith-based and governments have no business funding religious organizations. The second focuses on the role public schools play in integrating their students into mainstream society and how independent schools promote segregation instead. Finally, opponents argue that since students from wealthy families are most likely to attend private schools, the policy amounts to a subsidy for the rich.

These arguments seem convincing because current funding arrangements for public, separate, and independent schools focus on funding school boards and/or individual schools. The funding arrangement shifts debate toward which school system is most worthy of public funding.

Adopting a model that lets the money follow the student would be a better way to handle the question. Letting the money follow the student moves us away from the tiresome debate about independent schools funding and puts the emphasis on the choices made by students and their parents.

Doing so would allow each student to attend any school of his or her choice, and a school’s provincial funding would then depend on the number of students who chose it, provided they follow the provincial curriculum and demonstrate that their students are learning it.

Any school that chooses to follow the provincial curriculum and receives the full public funding allocated for each student can be considered a public school, regardless of its philosophical or religious orientation. While it is important to hold all schools accountable for their academic results, it makes little sense to assume that a one-size-fits-all approach is suitable for our diverse population. Students should choose a school that best meets their needs, and providing flexibility at the local school level is important to ensuring this happens.

As for the concern about subsidizing private schooling for wealthy families, a policy of funding the student actually equalizes educational opportunities for families with limited means. It makes them the primary beneficiaries because it enables them to choose schooling options currently beyond their reach due to financial limitations.

In the City of Edmonton, we see a good example of how this model works. More than two decades ago, the Edmonton Public School Board embarked on a revolutionary set of changes when they made choice the foundation of their approach to education. Some of the specialty schools from which to choose in Edmonton include those focusing on Aboriginal education, sports, science, the Waldorf approach, Christian education, and performing arts.

School principals in Edmonton have direct control of most of their budget, and that budget is directly correlated with the number of students who choose to attend their schools. They also have the freedom to allow their schools to specialize in various fields. In exchange, principals are held closely accountable for student achievement as measured by factors such as graduation rates, surveys, and standardized achievement tests.

While it is good to see Edmonton take the lead on these initiatives, other jurisdictions need to implement them as well.

Every province should provide funding that will follow students to whatever accredited school they attend, whether classified as public, separate, or independent.

Letting the money follow the student is an important component of ensuring everyone gets the best education possible. While Saskatchewan’s decision does not get there, its opening on funding structure brings students in that province closer to the option for greater choice.

School boards should follow Edmonton’s lead

Originally published in The Globe and Mail, April 1, 2010. Original Link

Like many other urban school divisions, the Toronto District School Board continues to struggle with declining enrolment due to private school competition and parents who move to the suburbs. But a plan for the development of specialty schools could be just the thing needed to rejuvenate Toronto’s stagnated public school system – provided it does it right.

According to education director Chris Spence, the Toronto board plans to allow four specialized elementary schools to open in September of 2011 – a school for boys, a school for girls, a choir school and a sports academy. They will operate within the public system and have an open enrolment policy. No tuition fees will be charged.

Allowing parents more choice is a welcome change from the usual “one size fits all” model imposed on neighbourhoods by public school boards. By enabling the creation of specialty schools within the public system, the boards can meet the needs of parents who would otherwise choose to enroll their children in private schools.

What’s happening in Toronto is by no means unique. More than two decades ago, the Edmonton Public School Board launched a revolutionary set of changes when it made choice the foundation of its approach to education. Some of the specialty schools include those that focus on aboriginal education, sports, science, the Waldorf approach, Christian education, and performing arts. Parents also have the option of regular neighbourhood schools.

While many cities have seen an exodus of students from their public schools, Edmonton experienced the reverse. Because of the many choices available to parents within the public system, there is little need for private school options. In fact, some of Edmonton’s public schools are former private schools that joined the public system because of the flexibility provided by the school board.

For the success experienced by Edmonton to be replicated in other cities such as Toronto, however, there are a number of issues school boards need to keep in mind.

The first is that the boards must embrace choice as an integral part of their overall philosophy and not simply as another fad to implement on a trial basis in a few isolated pockets. While it’s positive that Toronto will allow for several specialty schools, that school board should go much further. There’s no reason to limit choice to only a few groups of parents. All parents should be able to send their children to the school that best meets the needs of their children.

Also, it’s important to allow a variety of specialty schools to emerge. As long as schools follow the basic curriculum and all other provincial guidelines, there’s no reason for boards to arbitrarily restrict specialty schools to those preferred by individual board members or administrators. Limited choice results in limited results. If the numbers warrant it, parents should be able to have a school that emphasizes the specialty of their choice.

Another key aspect of the Edmonton model is how principals are given control over their own budgets; this allows them to create the most effective environment possible. More than 90 per cent of every dollar raised by the Edmonton Public School Board is controlled at the local level by individual principals. This flexibility gives them the authority they need to manage their schools effectively.

But local school autonomy needs to be combined with accountability. Edmonton principals are held accountable for their results: Students write regular standards tests in the core academic subjects with each school’s results made available to the public. As a result, this information becomes part of what parents take into account when deciding where to enroll their children.

In short, school boards need to ensure that choice is made available to all parents, be open to a variety of specialty options, give principals greater autonomy, and hold schools accountable for their results through the use of standardized achievement tests in the core subjects.

If Toronto and other urban school boards follow Edmonton’s lead, Canadians could see a revolution take place in the quality of education provided to our children.