Alberta private schools need to pay their own way, education and labour groups say

Advocacy group Public Interest Alberta and 13 other education and labour organizations are calling on the Alberta government to phase out public funding for private schools over three years.

'Our members without exception feel that public dollars should fund public schools'

Bruce Fafard, president of the Edmonton and District Labour Council, speaks at a news conference about getting funding given to private schools reallocated to the public and Catholic systems.

Advocacy group Public Interest Alberta and 13 other education and labour organizations are calling on the Alberta government to phase out public funding for private schools over three years.

Money redirected from private schools should go back into the public system so the NDP government can fulfil education-related campaign promises, the group says.

"Our members, without exception, feel that public dollars should fund public schools," Arlene Hrynyk, president of the Public School Boards Association of Alberta, said at a Thursday news conference in Edmonton. 

Among the other groups banding together are the Alberta Teachers' Association, the Edmonton Public School Board, several public employees' unions and the labour councils in Calgary and Edmonton. 

In 2016, Alberta private schools got $248 million in funding. The group says that money could be phased out over three years, with an exemption for special education schools.

The money could then be reallocated to the public system where it would be used to reduce school fees and class sizes, increase classroom supports and introduce a school lunch program.   

According to the ATA, private schools promote smaller class sizes, but that comes at a cost with parents often having to pay anywhere between $10,000 to $15,000 per year, or even more, for their child's private education.

Money should be spent reducing class sizes

"Only five of Alberta's 61 public boards have (kindergarten to Grade 3) class sizes that meet the targets established 15 years ago by the Alberta Commission on Learning," said Jonathan Teghtmeyer, associate coordinator of communications with the ATA.

"Our high schools too often have classes with 35 to 40 or even more students, and unfortunately too many students with special needs are not getting the support they need to be successful."

It's a message John Jagersma has heard before. He is executive director of the Association of Independent Schools and Colleges in Alberta, which advocates on behalf of member private schools.

The association issued a statement Thursday calling the campaign by education and labour groups a "misguided proposal" based on a "flawed premise" that private schools cost taxpayers money.

"We recognize that all taxpayers contribute to the education of kids in this province," said Jagersma.

"The parents who send their kids to an independent school certainly do so as well and they receive significantly less funding than public school kids do." 

No subsidies, public board chair says

Public funding works out to about $5,100 for each student who attends a private school. Students in the public system receive $13,000 per school year, AISCA says. 

But Michael Janz, chair of the Edmonton public school board, said private schools shouldn't be subsidized with any government funding.

"We support the existence of private schools, we support their ability to deliver education and to provide that choice for parents, but what we take umbrage with, though, is the idea we as a taxpayer should have to subsidize that choice instead," Janz said.

"Ontario, which has a zero-dollar subsidy for private schools, has three times as many private schools as Alberta, so that to me says that it's not really about the funding — it's about if parents want to make that choice they will continue to make that choice, regardless of what the tuition or the costs or the other expenses will be."

Government aware of concerns 

The government says it is focused on working providing "great education" for all students.

More funding for the system has made classrooms smaller by hiring over 1,300 new teachers and assistants and protecting as many as 800 teaching assistant jobs. It has also launched a school nutrition pilot in 14 school boards across the province that will provide nutritious meals to about 5,000 students.

"We need to continue to ensure all public money is being used in the classroom to support students and to prepare them for success," said a spokesperson for Education Minister David Eggen, who said the government is already aware of the concerns raised by the education and labour groups.