In Alberta, funding for private schools is perhaps the most generous in Canada. These subsidies have recently become the focus of public and media scrutiny, primarily because of a multi-group initiative spearheaded by the Edmonton Public School District, Public Interest Alberta, the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta, and others. ( more here)
Public funds for private schools are problematic for a number of reasons, and most of the reasons are never even acknowledged, let alone discussed in meaningful ways. This post explores the issue of cost. Subsequent posts will explore a number of other issues that may ultimately be more important than cost.
Cost is an issue.
Public support for private schools is a subsidy, since the money only covers part of the cost of the education provided and the public support is not accompanied by any requirement to contain costs in any way whatsoever. Albertans should ask if private schools may provide extravagant facilities and/or programs, and contract with 3rd parties to provide goods, services and/or facilities. Does the provincial government have strict reporting and public disclosure requirements to assure that payments, either directly or to contractors, are not overly generous, or unnecessary except to enrich someone once removed from the private school. Can private schools pay their Board of Directors honourarii any amount and/or re-imburse Directors for expenses, without limits? Is there timely disclosure of all payments made to close parties? Can private schools pay any number of executive staff (indeed, any staff) without limits? Is there any control over potential conflict of interest situations?
Bearing all that in mind, ending the government subsidy could conceivably result in greater direct cost to the government. Potentially, every student currently enrolled in a private school would return to the public or separate school systems, where the government’s financial obligation, per pupil, would be greater than the per pupil cost of the subsidy.
Practically speaking, that is extremely unlikely, although some students would almost certainly return to the public or separate school systems.
There are basically three kinds of private schools the funding for which is being challenged. (The alliance is proposing that private schools for special needs students should be exempted from the phase-out of the subsidy.) There are a number of ‘elite’ private schools, characterized, with respect to cost, by high tuition and associated fees. There are a number of ‘church-associated’ schools characterized, with respect to cost, by tuition fees that are more or less equal to the annual per pupil subsidy from the provincial government. There are a small number of ‘theory of schooling’ (Steiner, Montessori, hockey focus, etc.) private schools that are also characterized, with respect to cost, by tuition fees that are more or less equal to the annual per pupil subsidy from the provincial government.
Ontario provides no public funding for private schools. On the basis of the Ontario experience, and hypothesizing about an end to government funding in Alberta, the following seem to be reasonable tentative conclusions.
- Virtually none of the students enrolled in ‘elite’ private schools would return to the public or separate school systems. The family’s socio-economic condition would probably not be changed in any material way by the removal of the subsidy. Other attractors to the private school would remain strong: they might even be stronger in the absence of a public subsidy.
- A significant majority of students would likely remain In ‘church-associated’ private schools. Parents have made an important faith commitment and both the parents and the school are likely embedded in a community that will fund-raise to replace some or all of the former subsidy.
- A majority of students enrolled in ‘theory of learning’ private schools might return to the public or separate school systems. The parents commitment is not as deeply grounded as the faith-based commitment of other parents and the school is not likely embedded in a community that would fund-raise to replace some or all of the former subsidy.
Financially, the provincial government might well gain by ending the subsidy. If there is a net cost to the provincial government it will likely be much less than would result from a 100% return of all private school students to the public or separate school systems.
It is unknown if there has been any good survey or other research on the issue of ‘return’ in the event the provincial government subsidy ends.
An indirect and unmeasured cost is the cost of compliance, including the cost of negligible compliance. Private schools are not well and consistently monitored. Standards are not clear, consistent, and comparable to standards for public or separate schools. Compliance is more costly to enforce, because private schools operate in the private sector, not the public sector.
The main thrust of arguments supporting public funds for private schools is that the funds represent the cost of ‘freedom’ or ‘choice’. This will be explored in subsequent posts.