Closure of Christian school association angers Alberta home-school parents

Parents of some 3,500 children enrolled in an Alberta home-schooling program wonder what’s next, after the service that helped them plan their children’s education was accused of financial misdealings and shut down.

‘Troubled and left in a lurch,’ says parent over cancellation of school year

Mom Peregrine Nowlan homeschooled her son Russell through Wisdom's program. 'The sad fact is that many parents who are happy in their homeschool can now spend who knows how long trying to find another,' she told CBC. (Supplied/Nowlan family)

Parents of 3,500 children enrolled in an Alberta home-schooling program are wondering what's next, after the service that helped them plan their children's education was accused of financial misdealings and shut down.

The children registered with the Trinity Christian School Association shut down Tuesday by Alberta Education represent 30 per cent of the province's total home-schooling population.

"I'm very troubled and left in a lurch," said Barbara Duteau, who home-schooled her two children through the program 13 years.

Parent petition

Duteau said it was a huge shock when officials notified her of the closure through robocalls and a town hall, telling parents the decision is permanent and asking them to register with other school boards for the rest of the year.

She sides with the school, hopes it can stay open and wishes the government had handled it better.

"I think the government needs to look into this further," Duteau said. "If there's a problem, fix it."

More than 1,000 parents signed a petition Wednesday to re-instate the organization's accreditation. They wish the government had designated an outside administrator to handle funds while the financial issues are sorted — instead of shutting down the school association completely. 

Why is Alberta publicly funding private schools? It's a contradiction in and of itself.- Duncan Kinney, Progress Alberta

The government said the scale of the problem was too great to handle it that way. Its audit found that public funding designated for the Trinity Christian School Association was directed to a third party, Wisdom Home Schooling Society, even though Wisdom had "no relationship" with Alberta Education.

In 2014/2015, Wisdom spent $5.2 million, or 90 per cent, of all the home-education grant funding that had gone to Trinity, the audit found. Wisdom was also found to have retained $988,000 in unclaimed parent funding over the past three years.

'Over and above'

Duteau said she had no idea that Wisdom was not affiliated with the government, and described the school association as one that goes "over and above what the typical school board can provide."

This idyllic scene welcomes visitors to the website of the now unaccredited Wisdom Home Schooling program which promises "traditional home schooling, where parents have control over what is taught to their children, how it is taught, and when." (Wisdom Home Schooling website)
Wisdom, through Trinity, was classified as a private school association. Duteau said she did not pay tuition to enrol her children with Wisdom. Instead, she submitted a lesson plan to a Wisdom "school facilitator" and could then choose to enrol her children in some of the paid online courses offered by the facilitators.

Alberta's education laws require a certified teacher to assess lesson plans submitted by home-schooling parents twice each year. On the organization's website, Wisdom assures parents "your facilitator is there to help you reach your goals in educating your children, while at the same time satisfying government requirements."

The full list of online courses featured on Wisdom's website covers mainly classical literature, history and philosophy. Of the roughly 60 online classes, just three name math as the main subject. Only one lists science in the description.

On its Facebook page Wednesday, Wisdom Home Schooling asked supporters to use the hashtag #WeStandWithWISDOM, 'as you carry on sharing important information and defending the truth.' (Wisdom Home Schooling Facebook page)
Duteau's daughter had enrolled in three online courses for this year's fall session. Her family estimates they paid roughly $580 at the beginning of the school year for three 14-week courses: Latin, Canadian Government and Classic Literature. Duteau said it's unclear right now whether she will get that money back.

In addition to funds received from parents, Trinity Christian School Association received public taxpayer money from the government, through legal grants.

Public funds, private institutions

Duncan Kinney, executive director of independent non-profit Progress Alberta, obtained the association's financial records through Freedom of Information. He said the government designated more than $31 million in public grant money to the association since the start of the 2010-11 school year.

Those documents show that overall, private schools in Alberta received more than $866 million of public funds since 2010-11.

"Publicly funding private schools is already a waste of taxpayers' money. But when you add on these alleged financial improprieties for a massive private school — I think it's time to reconsider," Kinney said.

"Why is Alberta publicly funding private schools? It's a contradiction in and of itself."

Kinney pointed out that the province's private education system is funded from the public purse, to a level equal to 70 per cent of what a public school student would be funded.

Opposition responds

"We don't think that a lot of Albertans know that we have one of the most generous public subsidies to private schools in the nation," he said. "And that indeed only half of the provinces in this country publicly fund private schools."

Alberta's Official Opposition Wildrose released a statement Wednesday in support of families who choose home-schooling.

"Like everyone, we were shocked to hear that according to the department of education, taxpayer funds were mishandled at Trinity Christian. It's vital that we are always vigilant in how taxpayer resources are being handled," the statement reads.

It goes on, however, to express discontent over how the announcement was handled.

"We are hearing reports from parents across the province frustrated by late afternoon robocalls and unsatisfactory answers by ministry officials about if they will still be able to access the same parent-driven models of education they have chosen for their children…Wildrose will be reviewing all documents related to this case closely."

CBC News requested interviews with officials of Trinity and Wisdom but they declined.

Trinity and Wisdom have sent a letter to parents telling them "not to do anything yet" because they will soon learn about other options for their children. The letter said the news release announcing the government's action was "filled with partial truths amounting to calumny."

The letter said it was "logical" of Wisdom to have retained unspent funds to be used on home education programming, and that the government made "a false assumption" in determining "that the work of Wisdom is not the work of Trinity."

with files from Kim Trynacity and Radioactive