Undermining public education

Privatization and “school choice” in Alberta

When Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party (UCP) was elected to a majority government in Alberta in 2019, everyone with a stake in public education had reason to be concerned about the party’s plans for K-12 education. This was a party whose election platform included a promise to scrap a curriculum that they branded as “NDP social engineering” (despite its being initiated by a previous Conservative government), and another promise to expand choice in education, a phrasing that is usually associated with a move toward privatization. Support Our Students Alberta is a non-partisan, non-profit public education advocacy group fighting for the rights of all children to an equitable and accessible public education system, and we are concerned about the increasing privatization of public education in Alberta.

Alberta has perhaps the widest array of “school choice” in Canada, with options that include not only the public, Catholic, and Francophone boards that are the historical basis of the province’s public education system, but also private schools, homeschooling, and charter schools (an American invention that has been adopted in Alberta, but not yet elsewhere in Canada). Many of these options receive partial or full public funding. The UCP government has further expanded these options.

The degree to which some of these programs are public vs. private is hotly debated in Alberta. When most people hear “privatization,” they probably imagine some sort of user-pay, for-profit business. In education, this may look like an exclusive private school, and Alberta certainly has those. However, privatization encompasses more than these elite schools. The Encyclopedia of Educational Theory and Philosophy notes that privatization is not simply about for-profit service delivery, but is also about shifting funding and/or governance of public services to private control, including “public subsidies either to private providers or to service users; shifting costs to users; or restructuring policies so that users of a public good or service are instead treated as market-style consumers under the logic that the good or the service primarily generates individual, private benefits.” 1 

In other words, privatizers view education not as a public good that prepares future citizens to participate in their communities and society, but rather as a consumer product for individuals who have a right to access public funds to achieve their particular goals.  But it is not only funding, but also governance that shifts when schools are privatized. While public education is governed by publicly elected boards, privatization often shifts governance and oversight to private entities, or in the case of homeschooling, to individual families.

Public education advocates argue that this shift is intended to undermine public systems through defunding; weakening teachers’ unions and public boards; and presenting less accountable bodies as equally legitimate, or even as more desirable, all while eroding the idea of public education as a social good. In the words of education scholar Diane Ravitch, “Abandoning public schools for a free-market system eviscerates our basic obligation to support them whether our own children are in public schools, private schools or religious schools, and even if we have no children at all.” 2

In Alberta, we see evidence of all these trends, along with a concerted effort to blur the lines between public and private education.

The most obvious exemplars of privatized education in Alberta are traditional private schools. Private schools may or may not receive government funding, depending on whether they are willing to use certificated teachers and teach the provincial programs of study (curriculum).

If a private school chooses to be accredited and funded, then it receives 70 percent of the per-student funding that a public school receives. While similar arrangements exist in other provinces, Alberta’s level of funding for private schools is the highest in Canada. Many provinces, including Ontario, do not fund private schools at all. On top of this public subsidy, tuition fees can range from a few thousand dollars per year to over $20,000 for elite private schools.

Homeschooling is another private arrangement that receives public funding. Alberta has by far the highest number of homeschooled children in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, 14,730 Alberta children were homeschooled in 2019/203. The province with the next highest number is Ontario, which despite its much larger population only had 6,564 children being homeschooled. Funding is available for students doing supervised homeschooling (under the supervision of a school authority or private school). The per-student subsidy is $1,700, divided evenly between the child’s family and the supervising school authority.

As Curtis Riep notes in his analysis of homeschooling in Alberta (pp. 17-18), “For some scholars, homeschooling represents an extreme form of a broader shift toward educational privatization since it represents a retreat from the public sphere, students lack exposure to cultural and ethical diversity, and learning is predicated on individualistic needs and wants rather than collective action, social responsibility, and democratic citizenship.”4

Charter schools are an American invention that Alberta also adopted in the 1990s; they do not exist elsewhere in Canada. Charter school advocates insist that these schools are public, since they are publicly funded, but it’s evident both in the USA and Canada, that charter schools are on the privatization continuum, especially if our definition of privatization includes the shift of governance away from public entities; public subsidies to private providers; and treatment of public services as a marketplace that caters to individual choices.

Introduced in the U.S. by the Bush administration, the marketing pitch for charter schools was that they were to function as test beds for innovative educational reforms that could, if successful, be adopted by the larger public system, an idea that is also expressed in Section 13 of Alberta’s Charter Schools Regulation. In practice, however, they have become publicly funded, privately operated schools, essentially private schools within the public system. Alberta charter schools, like public schools, receive 100 percent per-student funding. However, they do not fall under the governance of school boards; their own boards are not publicly elected, and they are accountable directly to the Education Minister. They are not required to hire unionized teachers. The charter documents that encompass their terms of reference are not publicly available.

Charter schools may be established by an individual or group wishing to provide a specialized approach or focus that is purportedly not already offered by other local public boards, they must follow the Alberta curriculum, and they are not allowed to charge tuition fees or deny access to students “if sufficient space and resources are available,”5 according to the Charter Schools Handbook.

There is an unavoidable tension, however, between this requirement and the understanding articulated in the Handbook that “charter schools specialize in a particular educational service or approach in order to address a particular group of students.” For example, a charter school whose focus is gifted education, academic rigour, a focus on STEM or the arts, or “character development” is going to cater to particular groups of people. Anecdotally, there are accounts of individual families being advised that a particular charter school may not be “the right fit” for their child.

There are also very real barriers to participation that may include geographic location, onerous application processes that may include academic assessments for a fee, or expectations placed on students and families. Many charters also do not offer the accommodations and supports for special needs that may be found in the public system, nor are they legislatively required to accommodate. American education researcher Kevin Welner has identified a dozen ways in which charter schools shape enrollment6. While some of these practices do not apply in Alberta’s context, others are arguably present—including marketing to a particular niche, language around “fit,” placement assessments, and expectations around parental involvement.

The proliferation of charter schools has also resulted in public boards feeling pressure to compete for students and the funding that comes with them, by providing alternative offerings of their own. These alternatives may range from multilingual programming to programs such as Montessori, single-gender schools, or faith-based schooling. Some school boards have even allowed formerly private schools to convert to alternative programs. If a private school chooses to do this, it will ostensibly fall under the governance of the board it joins; however, these schools appear to retain a great deal of autonomy, including the ability to charge fees beyond what would be allowed by a truly public school.

One such example is Master’s Academy, a Christian school in Calgary. Established in 1997 as a private school, Master’s joined the Palliser School Division as an alternative public school in 2008. Palliser is a rural school division that originally supported a swath of municipalities in Southern Alberta; however, it has added several faith-based Calgary schools to its list of alternative programs.

Under Alberta’s Education Act (section 13.1), such schools may not charge tuition to students who reside within the board’s jurisdiction. However, section 19.5 of the Act states that the board (not the individual school) may charge fees to cover non-instructional costs related to the alternative program7.

Master’s Academy’s web site lists a “Palliser school fee” of $35 per child8. This is the fee that goes to the Board. However, that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what families pay directly to the Master’s Academy Educational Society. All families with children attending Master’s must purchase a “family bond” that starts at $7,000 for one child, and is refundable, minus any interest earned, when the child leaves the school. But the real big-ticket cost is the annual “society fee” to the Master’s Academy Educational Society of over $7,000 per year for full-time students in Grades 1-12. It appears that structuring payments as a fee that goes to a school society is sufficient to evade the Education Act’s prohibition on public boards’ alternative programs charging tuition. A review of some of the other alternative programs operating under public boards in Alberta indicates that while many alternative programs do not engage in this practice, Master’s is not the only alternative school to charge this type of fee through a society. Schools charging thousands of dollars in fees are essentially private schools functioning under the umbrella of a public board, collecting 100 percent of the per-student allocation of public dollars, rather than the 70% that they would be eligible for if they operated as accredited funded private schools.

While Alberta arguably has the most extensive school choice and the highest level of privatization of any K-12 system in Canada, the UCP government is committed to further expanding privatization. In 2020, the UCP passed the Choice in Education Act, which removed the requirement for charter school groups to give public boards the first option to offer a program as an alternative public program, provides for the establishment of “vocation-focused” charter schools focusing on trades and technologies, and removes the requirement that a school authority supervise home education programs.

A provincial election in 2023 may bring in a change of government, but the NDP opposition have thus far been circumspect about where they stand on charter schools and privatization in education, nor did they implement policies to curb or reverse privatization when they were in government. Historically, Alberta has had the wealth to support all options in this patchwork system to a certain standard. With shrinking budgets and a growing student population, this level of continued support seems unlikely, and hard choices have to be made. Support Our Students works to raise public awareness of how many resources are being actively directed away from the public system that serves all children, to support the preferences of the minority of families that choose to opt out of public education.

Heather Ganshorn is Research Director at Support Our Students Alberta

References

[1] Lubienski C. Privatization. Encyclopedia of Educational Theory and Philosophy 2014:649–51.

[2] Ravitch D. The charter school mistake. Los Angeles Times 2013. https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-ravitch-charters-school-reform-20131001-story.html (accessed April 13, 2022).

[3] Statistics Canada. Number of home-schooled students in regular programs for youth, elementary and secondary education, by grade and sex 2021. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/tv.action?pid=3710017801 (accessed April 14, 2022).

[4] Riep C. Homeschooling in Alberta: The Choices, Contexts, and Consequences of a Developing System 2021. https://public-schools.ab.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Homeschooling-in-Alberta-The-Choices-Contexts-and-Consequences-of-a-Developing-System.pdf (accessed April 13, 2022).

[5] Charter Schools Regulation. Government of Alberta 2020. https://www.qp.alberta.ca/570.cfm?frm_isbn=9780779818648&search_by=link (accessed April 13, 2022).

[6] Welner KG. The Dirty Dozen: How Charter Schools Influence Student Enrollment. National Education Policy Center 2013. https://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/TCR-Dirty-Dozen (accessed April 14, 2022).

[7] Government of Alberta. Education Act 2019. (accessed April 14, 2022).

[8] Admissions – Master’s Academy & College 2020. https://masters.ab.ca/admissions/ (accessed April 15, 2022).

About Heather Ganshorn
Heather Ganshorn is Research Director at Support Our Students Alberta

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