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Conservative parties compete to demand tax subsidies for Alberta's private and religious schools

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Jason Kenney (David Climenhaga photo)

For a supposed sometime-tax fighter, Jason Kenney sure seems to favour the high-tax solution when his friends and allies and their special-interest groups stand to benefit.

Take the matter of education taxes, for example, where the Progressive Conservative leadership frontrunner has placed himself noisily in the camp of those who are strongly in favour of using tax dollars to support high-tuition private schools, not to mention subsidizing religious home schoolers who could be teaching their children anything.

When a group of 14 organizations opposed to this misuse of tax money grabbed some media attention last week with the claim that $100 million could be redirected to public, Catholic and francophone schools if we stopped heavily subsidizing elite private schools, agenda-ridden charter schools and home instruction that in some cases is little more than publicly funded All-Year Vacation Bible School, Kenney was so angry he accused them of all being...New Democrats!

Leastways, he accused the Alberta New Democrats of being behind Thursday's press conference, which was organized by Public Interest Alberta, through what he called "NDP-linked special interest groups” by naming some of the people involved who are New Democrats.

Well, all's fair in love and politics, I guess, as long as we remember there's also a long list of people supporting the same cause who are not New Democrats -- like the Edmonton Public School Board, whose trustees have come from all over the political spectrum, and representatives of the Alberta School Boards Association, an organization that has hardly been known for its progressive, NDP-style positions in the past, and which historically has been lousy with ambitious Tories.

Even the Alberta Teachers Association, while it is a union, has traditionally been a generous contributor of talented teachers to the PC benches in the Legislature.

Not that there's anything unique on the right side of the political aisle about Kenney's apparent opinion it's always the right time to spend tax dollars on your friends. The Wildrose Opposition said pretty much the same thing.

In a news release, Wildrose Education Critic Leela Aheer demanded that Education Minister David Eggen publicly disavow the calls to end tax subsidies for exclusive private educational institutions.

She also repeated the thoroughly discredited claim that private schools save taxpayers money by reducing the impact of population growth on the public system. Many of the assumptions on which this is based are false, including the idea that all children from impacted private schools would automatically return to the public system.

Remember, private schools in Alberta currently receive 70 per cent of the operational funding of public schools and can charge whatever they please for tuition. The average parent's contribution through provincial taxes to the cost of education for their child is only 5.9 per cent of the total per pupil cost.

Ontario gives no such subsidy and has more than three times as many private schools.

As for the NDP planning -- as Kenney tendentiously put it -- "to radically transform Alberta's education system," if only it were so!

Alas, Premier Rachel Notley's New Democrats are as disinclined as Kenney is to do anything about this waste of $100 million.

Eggen quickly did as instructed by Aheer and distanced himself unequivocally from the education advocates' idea. "For the sake of security, for the sake of stability in our education at this point, I have no plans to change that landscape here in the province of Alberta,” he stated.

It's easy to understand why, I guess. As special interest groups go, the people behind well-heeled private schools and religious education are politically connected, skilled at lobbying and savvy about how to apply political pressure through the media. The NDP has taken on enough significant issues not to be interested in this particular fight, now or in the future, no matter how many of their friends wish they were.

That fact acknowledged, it’s still worth remembering what Alberta's conservative parties want to do, which is to continue heavily subsidizing private schools and other forms of exclusionary education while cutting funds to public services.

Who do you think will get hurt if that happens?

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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