Edmonton public school board calls on province to phase out funding for private schools

Edmonton public school trustees voted Tuesday to ask the province to phase out funding for private schools.

'Public funding should belong to schools that use it to educate the public,' says trustee

The Edmonton Public School Board passed a motion Tuesday to ask the province to phase out public funding for private Alberta schools. (CBC)

Edmonton public school board trustees voted Tuesday to ask the province to phase out funding for private schools.

Trustee Trisha Estabrooks put forward the motion with the hope the money saved would be reinvested in public education.

"Public funding should belong to schools that use it to educate the public," Estabrooks said. "No matter our background, our faith or our income."

Provincial budget talks begin this spring, and so far Alberta's NDP government has done nothing to change the education funding model, Estabrooks said.

In 2016, the province gave private schools $248 million in funding.

In a draft policy published last year, the United Conservative Party said the Alberta government should ensure equal per-student funding regardless of school choice — public, separate, charter, home or private.

Trisha Estabrooks, Edmonton Public School Board trustee, tabled the motion. (Edmonton Public School Board)

Estabrooks doesn't agree.

"The idea put forth by the United Conservative Party certainly has the potential to seriously erode and compromise our public education system," Estabrooks said, citing the need for the board to take a clear stance.

"Phasing out the funding of private schools doesn't remove the choice for families ... The choice those families now have is to pay a little bit extra in tuition money or send your child to a publicly funded public school."

Near-unanimous support

Eight out of nine trustees voted in favour of the motion.

Trustee Sherry Adams voted against it, calling the idea "very unsettling."

"I believe it's unreasonable to assert that every child will or must fit into the public school system," Adams said.

"This defunding would effectively eliminate the majority of independent schools and weaken diversity and the health of differing viewpoints in our educational systems."

Independent schools save the province money, Adams said. Trustee Ken Gibson called the money-saving argument "irrelevant."

"I'm not aware of any other form of public investment where individual taxpayers get to say, 'Well, you know, I never use the Quesnell Bridge, so I really don't want to pay for that. But I do happen to use the Henday, so I'll pay for that.' "

The Edmonton Public School Board approved the motion at its meeting on Tuesday. (Kaylen Small/CBC)

Board vice-chair Bridget Stirling said students will always be welcome to go outside the public system, regardless of funding.

"Nobody's saying you can't have that choice," Stirling said. "But it's not my responsibility, as a taxpayer, to subsidize that. And I don't think it's our responsibility as a community to say, 'We're going to take money out of our public system for families who don't want to use that.' "

Trustee Michael Janz said private schools work best when they're funded privately.

"It's unfair for you to go to Chapters, buy a bunch of books, then bring the receipt over to the library and say, 'I'm a taxpayer. I want you to refund 70 per cent of my purchase.' That'd be absurd," he said.

"But if you choose to go and use Chapters or another bookstore, power to you."

Continuing with the metaphors, Janz added, "We may not all drive on the QE2, but the QE2 is a very important piece of community infrastructure. And if I decide to take a helicopter to Calgary, well then that's my choice."

Eight of nine trustees approved the motion. Ward I trustee Sherry Adams voted against it, saying she wants families to have more choice in how their children's education is provided. (Kaylen Small/CBC)

With the motion passed 8-1, the board will send a letter to Education Minister David Eggen asking the ministry to phase out its funding for private schools. 

In an emailed statement to CBC News, Eggen said the government "continues to provide stable funding to our public education system because we know that it's an investment in our province's future."

He added, "We always welcome feedback from trustees as we assess how best to fund education in Alberta."