How much funding private and public schools actually get in Alberta

Alberta's education system is complicated, to begin with, and the ways we fund it add a whole other layer of complexity. But let's break it down, bit by bit, and look at answers to some of the most common questions.

The numbers that sometimes get lost as the debate over public funding for private education rages on

Students raise their hands at Calgary's Our Lady of Fatima School in this file photo. (CBC)

We spend nearly $10 billion a year to educate kids in Alberta and, every so often, we argue about the roughly three per cent of those taxpayer dollars that go to private schools.

The debate has bubbled up again recently, with lobby groups, unions and even the Edmonton Public School Board calling on the provincial government to cut off all public money for private education.

On the other side of the coin are independent school associations, parents who swear by the private system and the United Conservative Party, which has released a draft platform calling for private-school funding to be increased.

Who's right?

That's a matter of opinion. But the numbers are a matter of fact. And it's those facts that we're going to explore here, because they often get lost, misunderstood or cherry-picked in the debate.

Alberta's education system is complicated, to begin with, and the ways we fund it add a whole other layer of complexity. But let's break it down, bit by bit, and look at answers to some of the most common questions.

How much do we spend on education?

The Alberta government expects to spend about $9.8 billion on education this year.

The vast majority of that — about $7.1 billion — goes to the operation of public schools. That's a catch-all term, in this case, which includes the province's separate Catholic (and Protestant) schools, as well as charter schools and Francophone schools.

Here's how it breaks down.

Private schools, as you see in the chart above, make up a tiny slice of the overall pie: only $263 million.

That, of course, is related to the fact that far fewer students are enrolled in the private system.

The province projects 34,754 students will be enrolled in private schools and early childhood services (which include private kindergarten and private pre-kindergarten programs) in the current school year. That's just five per cent of total enrolment in Alberta.

The public system, by comparison, is expected to include 649,245 kids this year.

And that leads us to our next question.

How does per-student funding compare?

The short answer is that private schools get less funding, per student, than public schools.

But some of the numbers you might have heard don't tell the whole story.

It's been often reported that the province spends about $13,000 per student in public schools versus about $5,000 per student in private schools. Those numbers come from the Association of Independent Schools and Colleges In Alberta (AISCA).

A still image from a video posted online by the Association of Independent Schools and Colleges In Alberta that claims it costs the province about $5,000 per student to educate a child in private schools. This does not include children with special needs, however. (YouTube/Screenshot)

But do some simple math with the figures we just looked at, and you'll come to a different result:

  • Public: $7.1 billion ÷ 649,245 students = $10,936 per student
  • Private: $263 million ÷ 34,754 students = $7,567 per student

So what's going on?

A couple of things, according to AISCA executive director John Jagersma.

He said the $5,000 figure his association chose is derived from the base funding that "typical" students receive in the private system. It doesn't include additional funding for students with special needs.

The $13,000 figure for the public system, by contrast, does include special-needs funding. It also includes something private schools aren't eligible for: capital funding.

Who pays for school facilities?

This is a point that further muddies the financial waters, as capital funding varies a lot from year to year.

This school year, it's $1.4 billion. The year before, it was $1.8 billion. And the year before that, it was $960 million.

Capital funding is also a major difference between public and private schools. While the former rely almost entirely on the province to build and upgrade their facilities, the latter receive no public support to do so.

Factor in this year's capital expenditures and per-student funding for public students jumps to $13,092.

You can explore the numbers in more detail in the interactive chart below. (Here's a direct link in case the graph doesn't show up on your device.)

Where does the money come from?

A lot of people associate education with property taxes, and that is indeed where a good chunk of the funding comes from.

But the majority of the money comes from general government revenues, which account for $4.7 billion of the $7.1 billion in operational funding for public schools this year.

Private schools are not eligible for funding from property tax. Their public funding comes strictly from general revenues.

Alberta still maintains a system where property owners must declare their religious faith in order to determine whether their taxes go to the public school board or the separate Catholic (or Protestant) school board.

In practice, though, this makes no difference.

The Alberta government uses funds from general revenue to make sure schools in both the secular and religious systems receive the same amount of funding, per student.

The religious declaration requirement remains a historical "hangnail" in the eyes of Michael Janz, a public school trustee in Edmonton who has called on the province to abolish the practice.

But that would require a constitutional amendment, and the province has no plans to pursue that at this time, according to Lindsay Harvey, press secretary to Education Minister David Eggen.

Does the province lose or save money by funding private schools?

This is a contentious question that gets at the heart of the ongoing debate.

If you believe private schools should be financially self-sufficient, then the $263 million in taxpayer dollars they'll receive this year looks like money poorly spent. You likely believe the province should either save that money or spend it on the public system, instead.

If you believe private schools are complementary to public schools as part of the province's overall education system, then the calculations look quite different. You likely focus on the gap in per-student funding and note how much more it would cost the public purse if kids in private schools were educated in the public system.

As we've seen, the province shells out $3,369 more in operational funding for each student in the public system than it does in the private system.

At that rate, if all 34,754 kids in private school hypothetically switched to public school, it would cost the province $117 million more this year. That's above and beyond what it's currently paying to fund both systems' operations, and not including capital costs to build all the new schools that would be required.

So which is it? Does the private system save us money or cost us money?

How you see the answer to that question will depend on your fundamental beliefs about the role of the state and the independence of parents when it comes to raising the next generation of young minds.

And the debate will rage on.