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Now the public's tuned in, it'll be hard to put a lid back on discussion of rich subsidies to ritzy private schools

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Alberta Education Minister David Eggen (David Climenhaga photo)

Conservative private-school supporters, homeschoolers and members of other education special-interest groups who teamed up with conservative opposition parties to try to embarrass Alberta's New Democratic Party Government last summer appear to have unintentionally brought intense public scrutiny to their own excessive public funding.

Groups like Brian Coldwell's Baptist Christian Education Society were likely not even all that concerned about funding when they picked a public fight with the government in August. Coldwell, who is also associated with Parents for Choice in Education, seemed mainly to have been upset with Education Minister David Eggen's plan to enforce a law allowing students to form gay-straight alliances in their schools that had been passed by the Progressive Conservatives back when the late Jim Prentice was premier.

Nevertheless, all of a sudden there's active, vocal, widespread opposition to the largest public subsidies in Canada for private schools and dubious ideological home-schooling experiments in education, the product of more than four decades of Tory rule in Alberta. The dots are just so easy to connect!

What's more, the scrutiny and public anger about Alberta giving 70 per cent of the per-student public school grant to private school students has spread to groups that had no part in the initial rather crude attacks on the NDP.

So it was the huge sums of public cash lavished on elite private schools that charge more than $10,000 per student per year in tuition and the costs of Roman Catholic school boards that were coming under fire yesterday.

Like Pandora’s Box, it won't be easy for any of these groups to put the lid back on public discussion of the millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded subsidies they continue to receive, thanks to the legacy of Alberta's four-decade Tory Dynasty.

Yesterday morning, Progress Alberta published a list of 15 Alberta private schools that charge more than $10,000 per student and yet received millions of dollars in Tory-era legacy subsidies for their elite programs while public schools struggled to cover the basics.

What the schools on the list offer for the big bucks include groomed ski trails, horse riding instruction, golf teams and, of course, tiny classes.

Meanwhile, Progress Alberta said, "public schools deal with hungry children and classrooms with 30 plus students."

An earlier piece by the Edmonton-based activist group focused on the Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School near Okotoks, just south of Calgary, which charges tuition in excess of $21,000 per year per student -- and which received more than $20.5 million in public subsidies from Alberta taxpayers over five academic years!

About all the opposition parties have to defend this excess is the risible claim such schools offer "choice," and, you know, choice is good.

The same day, former Edmonton Public School Board chair Michael Janz was taking advantage of the renewed interest in school funding to argue the province has been favouring Catholic schools over public schools in capital funding decisions.

Janz, who is still an Edmonton school trustee, told reporters at an Edmonton news conference this pattern of unequal spending in favour of separate school has artificially inflated the enrollment in Catholic education because parents are "forced into that choice between sending their kid to a Catholic school or sending them on a long bus ride to a public school."

"The government should be ensuring that public students and public families get their fair share,' he asserted.

Between 2011 and 2016, Janz told reporters, 38 per cent of the money spent on school construction projects in the Capital Region went to Catholic schools, while about 25 per cent of the population was Catholic, and 17 per cent of voters indicated they wanted their taxes to support Catholic schools.

Ironically, given the way this started, the attention attracted to subsidies for ritzy private schools in particular may even have handed the NDP an effective wedge issue to use against the Wildrose and PC Parties.

But no matter what their political enemies claim, I'm certain the NDP Government would be as happy if the school funding issue just went away.

Premier Notley is a canny but cautious political operator, and she certainly realizes that as wedge issues go, this one comes with significant risks.

Still, it may have even bigger risks for the province's right-wing opposition, which is something they should have thought of when they and some of their politically motivated friends associated with generously funded religious private schools and home-schooling support groups decided to make an issue of it.

This just goes to show, particularly if you’ve got at 70 per cent of the per-student grant the sweetest funding deal in Canada, it might have been smarter to let the proverbial sleeping dog lie.

Well, it's too late now.

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

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