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Motion demanding public support for private, charter schools backfires on Alberta Tory leader

Ric McIver

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Has Progressive Conservative Party interim Leader Ric McIver's motion demanding the Alberta Legislature continue pouring more than $200 million a year into elite private schools, charter schools and home schooling schemes just completely backfired?

When McIver introduced Private Member's Motion No. 504 asking the Legislature to urge the government "to affirm its commitment to allowing parents the choice of educational delivery for their children, including home, charter, private, francophone, separate, or public education programs" the issue was barely on the public's radar.

Now, thanks in large part to McIver's effort, it is on the radar alright -- but it's hardly getting the kind of attention the Tory leader surely envisaged when he first tried to put Premier Rachel Notley's NDP government on the spot.

Perhaps it was irritation at this unexpected turn of events that prompted McIver's emotional outburst in the Legislature yesterday. He responded with a tantrum to an NDP member's effort to amend his motion to say the government should confirm its support for private and charter schools plus home schooling only when there are no alternatives in the public system. After refusing to obey Speaker Bob Wanner's instructions to sit down, he was escorted out of the House by the Sergeant at Arms.

Meanwhile, at today's Edmonton Public School Board meeting, trustees will debate Chairperson Michael Janz's motion "that the Board of Trustees reaffirm its commitment to the provincial government that public funding to private or charter schools should be phased out and reinvested in public education."

On his blog Sunday, Janz argued for the motion and urged NDP Education Minister David Eggen to use the review of the Education Act now under way "to ensure that public tax dollars are best being allocated to support public education.

"I support the elimination of public subsidies to private schools immediately,” Janz explained. "But if the minister isn’t ready to go there yet, as a compromise position, (he) could phase out the subsidies over a reasonable period of time."

Now, school boards don't command provincial governments, of course, especially here in Alberta. Technically, it’s the other way around. But they do have the power to influence public opinion, and it turns out the public does have an opinion on this matter.

What's more, it's not the same as that of either McIver's PCs of the Opposition Wildrose Party -- both of which support the Ralph-Klein-era policy relics of fully publicly funded "charter schools" and 70-per-cent funding for private schools.

A public opinion survey done by Mainstreet Research for Progress Alberta and released by the advocacy group shows there’s plenty of support for completely defunding private and charter schools -- which is surely not what McIver had in mind when he put this issue back on the agenda in his effort to appeal to the right-wing voter base, which the Tories and Wildrosers are fighting over at the moment.

The poll indicated 61 per cent of respondents are opposed to public funds being used for private schools, compared with 27 per cent in favour and 12 per cent who indicated they were not sure. The negative view of public funding for private schools, interestingly, was highest in Calgary at 72 per cent.

The survey also indicated 47 per cent of respondents were opposed to public funds being given to charter schools -- a gap that suggests many respondents understand the differences between charter schools and private schools. Another 31 per cent were in favour and 21 per cent said they didn’t know.

"Progress Alberta is calling on the government to eliminate public subsidies to private and charter schools," the advocacy group said of the survey. "It is simply ridiculous that in these difficult economic times the provincial government spent over $200 million public taxpayer dollars on private schools."

Another advocacy organization that focuses on education issues, Public Interest Alberta, stepped into the fray last week with a similar call for the government "to direct public funding to schools that operate under democratically elected school boards, which operate with public accountability and transparency of expenditures, rather than to private entities with private agendas."

"These are difficult financial times, and that same sum of money could have been used to eliminate school fees for all parents across the province, provide school lunch programs for children living in poverty throughout Alberta, or pay for much-needed programs to support indigenous learners," said PIA Executive Director Joel French.

Similar statements popped up on social media over the weekend in response to an editorial in the Calgary Herald edition of Postmedia's Alberta Frankenpaper sympathetic to the idea of continued public funding for private schools.

Alberta is the only Canadian province that funds charter schools, which are generally defined as alternative schools that receive government money but are really just private schools that are subsidized by taxpayers.

As argued in this space two weeks ago, this is a bad policy that takes money from taxpayers to bankroll often dubious and poorly monitored specialty programs, many of which cherry-pick students on such grounds as how likely they are to succeed and how much money their parents have. Practically speaking, it also takes money away from public education.

Alberta’s charter schools, which often try to deny their teachers fair pay and union representation, continue to receive the full per-student grant provided to public and separate schools.

This policy was implemented by the late Ralph Klein's PC government in 1995 as part of its program of undermining any public service where a profit could be made by corporations -- even if that ultimately cost citizens more and delivered lower-quality service.

In the same approximate time frame, the PCs also ratcheted up direct public support to fully private schools. They justified this by saying parents deserved choice and claiming subsidies were needed because that choice was expensive. At the same time, they allowed private schools that received public subsidies to have no limits on tuition, presumably so they could keep the un-moneyed riff-raff out. Private school tuition can cost as much as $50,000 a year in Alberta today.

Up to now, this had continued to be government policy under the NDP government of Premier Notley, and certainly would have remained so without much controversy but for McIver's ill timed grandstanding.

It's pretty clear the NDP doesn't really want to pick a fight with this particular highly engaged special interest group.

They may continue with that strategy, but McIver has made it much more difficult for them to do so by getting the attention of the apparently much larger group of Albertans who oppose these subsidies.

Arguably, the interim Tory leader has also done the conservative cause little good by demanding austerity and less for essential public services at the same time as he calls for continued public subsidies for a special interest group that traditionally supports his party.

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

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