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Support in Alberta is overwhelming for ending public support of elite private schools, new poll shows

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Minister of Education David Eggen visits Calgary school. Photo: Premier of Alberta/flickr

Now that's interesting! According to a new poll, the idea of ending funding for elite private schools enjoys more support in Alberta than does the idea of completing the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline to Vancouver!

The poll on education funding, done by Environics Research for the Alberta Teachers Association, dealt only with public attitudes about public funding for private schools.

While you could argue the choice of topic was motivated by the political and professional interests of the 40,000-member provincial teachers' union and regulatory association -- and someone is sure to -- no one can claim Environics is not a quality public opinion research firm using solid methodology. In this case, it based its conclusions on a telephone survey of 815 adult Albertans between Feb. 20 and 28.

On the question of whether public funding for elite private schools that charge more than $10,000 per year per student in tuition should be eliminated, 75 per cent of respondents agreed and more than half, 53 per cent, agreed strongly.

Of the remaining respondents to that question, 11 per cent moderately disagreed and 11 per cent strongly disagreed, for a combined 22 per cent. Three per cent indicated they didn't know.

Polling done a year ago by another well-known pollster, Abacus Data, indicated similarly high levels of support and an identical level of opposition for the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion project that currently dominates news coverage in both Alberta and British Columbia. In that survey, 58 per cent of respondents strongly supported, supported or said they could support in some circumstances expansion of Kinder Morgan Inc. megaproject, while 22 per cent were opposed or strongly opposed. Nineteen per cent said they didn't know.

This is interesting given the positions of Alberta's two principal political parties, the governing NDP and Opposition United Conservative Party, on both issues.

Both strongly support the pipeline -- indeed, their principal argument right now seems to be which of them supports it more.

But the NDP government led by Premier Rachel Notley gives the impression it would be just as happy if the private school funding issue would go away, notwithstanding the strong public support for defunding elite private schools and a general lack of public enthusiasm for private schools.

By contrast, the UCP led by Jason Kenney is enthusiastic and unstinting in its support for private schools, including continued use of public funds for high-tuition elite private schools that in Alberta charge up to $26,000 per year per student.

Progress Alberta, a progressive advocacy group based in Edmonton, earlier this month identified 17 private schools that charge tuition of more than $10,000 a year, and noted that they continue to pull in the largest per-student private school subsidy in Canada.

The reason for the NDP's wariness and the UCP's enthusiasm of this issue should be obvious. Albertans may generally be unenthusiastic about public funds going to private schools, especially chichi high-tuition institutions, but parents' groups associated with such schools tend to be influential, well connected, well heeled and motivated to back the political parties that support them with time, donations and votes.

That makes support for elite private schools an effective wedge issue that works for parties like Kenney's UCP -- as long as no one figures out the impact of this level of support on public schools.

The UCP consistently uses the neoliberal buzzword "choice" to describe the supposed benefits of private schools -- as if ordinary voters had the choice to sent their kids to a school that charges $26,000 a year for the privilege.

The results of the Environics survey suggest ordinary voters are starting to get it, suggesting both parties might want to reconsider their strategies on this issue.

Environics said the margin of error for a sample of this size is plus or minus 3.4 percentage points, with a confidence level of 95 per cent.

Other questions in the Environics survey indicated:

  • Half of the respondents strongly agreed schools that receive public funds should not charge for attendance. (50 per cent strongly agree; 27 per cent moderately agree; 12 per cent moderately disagree; 9 per cent strongly disagree; 2 per cent don't know.)
  • Fewer respondents thought private schools should be funded by the government. (14 per cent strongly agree; 17 per cent moderately agree; 25 per cent moderately disagree; 43 per cent strongly disagree.)
  • Six in 10 Albertans think the government is giving too much operational money to private schools. (61 per cent too much; 30 per cent just about right; 7 per cent too little.)
  • Support continues to grow for eliminating public funding for private schools and reinvesting the money in the public school system. (49 per cent strongly support; 23 per cent somewhat support; 13 per cent somewhat oppose; 13 per cent strongly oppose; 2 per cent don't know. The level of strong support was up from 44 per cent in a similar survey in June 2017 and 37 per cent in March 2017.)

Trends, arguably, are important in public opinion, something Alberta political parties forget -- or ignore -- in their ongoing conversation about the level of public support for that pipeline across the Rockies to B.C. However, that needs to be a topic for another day.

Meantime, the Alberta government continues to "invest" at least $29 million a year in elite private schools to which most of us could never hope to see our children and grandchildren attend. Kenney, chanting the mantra of "choice," appears to be committed to increasing that public subsidy while cutting education funding for most Alberta schoolchildren.

Alberta taxpayers spend about $110 million a year to subsidize private schools, excluding those that provide services for special needs children -- all without a peep of protest from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and other Astro-Turf groups created to support conservative political parties.

According to Progress Alberta's research, of the five Canadian provinces that subsidize private schools -- the others are B.C., Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Quebec -- Alberta's subsidy of 70 per cent of the amount paid per public and Catholic school student is the highest in the country.

"Elite private schools need to get off the gravy train of public subsidies," says Progress Alberta Executive Director Duncan Kinney. (No relation, and not the same spelling either.)

Isn't it funny, though, how it always turns out that some "gravy trains" have more merit than others in the eyes of conservative beholders!

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

Photo: Premier of Alberta/flickr

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