Cutting funding for private schools 'short-sighted,' say supporters of alternative education

The Edmonton public school board's call to phase out funding for private schools is stirring up an old debate about the role of private education in Alberta.

Parents and educators say private schools fill gaps in the education system

Waldorf education includes lots of outdoor play and learning. (Tania Kolinko/Shutterstock)

The Edmonton public school board's call to phase out funding for private schools is stirring up an old debate about the role of private education in Alberta.

Jane Huang's two daughters, Mia and Anya, receive their education at the Waldorf Independent School of Edmonton. 

Huang told CBC News on Wednesday that Mia struggles in social situations, and has blossomed in the Waldorf environment, which she describes as less structured and more personalized than a typical school.

"I can already see that my kids will fail in the public school system," Huang said. "If you have a special needs kid, and you know the school will fail your kid, what would you do?"

On Tuesday, Edmonton public school trustees voted to ask the province to phase out funding for private schools and reinvest the money in public education. The board will now send a letter to Education Minister David Eggen asking for action on the issue.

Not for the elite only

Huang pointed out that instead of tuition, Waldorf asks for an annual contribution between $1,000 and $3,000, depending on the family's means.

"In the beginning, I was a stay-at-home mom, so I could not contribute much," she explained. "Now that I'm back at work, I can afford to contribute more." 

John Jagersma, executive director of the Association of Independent Schools and Colleges of Alberta, said private school tuition varies greatly from one school to the next. 

Eighty per cent of the families who enroll their kids in private schools earn a lower income than the average Alberta family, Jagersma said. 

He said parents choose private schools to answer specific needs.

"The mandates are very broad, they are set by the individual school board," he said. "They can be anywhere from culture focused, faith based, Montessori, or Waldorf."

Pressure on public system

Jagersma added that the public school system is not equipped to absorb an influx of students with special needs. 

"It's short-sighted," said Jagersma."If [private schools] were to lose that funding, it's entirely realistic that the majority of those kids are going back to the public school system.

"That means an increase pressure on the system, it means an increased need for more school buildings."
 
Barbara Silva, of Support Our Students Alberta, a group that lobbies to end private school funding by the province, rejected that argument. 

A properly funded public system could answer the needs of all students, Silva said

"That's what we should be working toward, as opposed to having and creating different channels for people to leave the system."

Silva said parents can continue to choose alternative education for their children, but that "if a parent chooses to leave the public system, they need to leave the funding behind."

About the Author

Josee St-Onge

Journalist

Josee St-Onge is a journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has also reported in French for Radio-Canada in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Reach her at josee.st-onge@cbc.ca