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1998 private school funding report puts premier's support for 'choice' in education into context

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Jim Prentice

The mission of the Alberta Government's 1997-1998 Private Schools Funding Task Force appears to have been what committees of this sort are usually tasked with doing by the governments that commission them.

To wit: justifying a policy the government supports, in this case, the Ralph Klein Government's desire to avoid controversy while pumping significant amounts of public education tax dollars into private schools, many of which charge prohibitive tuition fees and take other measures to keep out the children of riffraff.

Naturally, this is not the way the five-member Task Force set up by Education Minister Gary Mar described its objectives or the purpose of the tuition fees it so energetically defended. On the contrary, it took pains to insist that the competition provided by private schools improves the entire education system and to repeat the claim that many parents "struggle every year to pay tuition so their children can attend private schools."

The conclusions of this mostly forgotten Task Force are significant today in part because of the make-up of the tiny committee chosen to do the job: the late Ron Stevens, a lawyer and then the Tory MLA for Calgary-Glenmore; Gary Duthler, executive director of the Association of Independent Schools and Colleges of Alberta; Dale Erickson, a director of the Alberta School Boards Association; and two parent representatives.

The latter were Patricia Ewanishan, a teacher's aide from Two Hills with a daughter in the public school system, and a Calgary lawyer named Jim Prentice, Q.C., a fellow with two daughters enrolled at the time in private schools.

When that same persuasive gentleman showed up last summer as a candidate for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party for which he had done his yeoman volunteer service nearly two decades ago, he rarely missed an opportunity to tell party members at all-candidates' meetings that he was a strong believer in choice in education.

Now "choice," in politics and economics, is usually code for better services for citizens who are in a position to choose to pay more, and in education it is no different. From Prentice's comments during the leadership campaign, it was apparent that the kind of choice he had in mind was enabled by taxpayer support for private schools.

Nevertheless, it's extremely interesting to put these occasional comments into the context of the Task Force's report and recommendations, Setting a New Framework, published in February 1998.

According to news reports at the time, the Task Force held 11 days of public hearings, heard from about 300 witnesses and had more than 4,000 submissions mailed to it. This certainly gives the impression the committee left no stone unturned in its deliberations, although a significant portion of those responses certainly came from highly motivated parents of children enrolled in private schools.

Regardless, despite claiming the five committee members "represent the full spectrum of views on whether or not private schools should receive funding," in their report task force members came down firmly on the side of public funding for private schools and the continued right of private schools to maintain their private state.

Of course, we cannot know how a task force "as diverse as Albertans when it comes to the issues involved” reached these conclusions, since its members did so behind closed doors.

Certainly the task force's summation of the views and opinions it heard seemed to this reader to be tilted to emphasize the positive aspect of the arguments made by defenders of public funding for private schools.

"Private school supporters argue with strong conviction that their schools support the diversity of Alberta society, and by their very nature, are a reflection of the tolerance and understanding Albertans want to foster and support," the report's authors confidently stated. "They argue that the right to choose a private education is fundamental and should not be compromised by the parents' ability to pay" -- hence the need for public subsidies.

"Many suggested that, if we consider the education of children to be a public good, and most would agree, then it should make no difference if that education is provided in the public or a private school," it went on, expressing another oft-spoken view of the beneficiaries of privatization.

Regardless, here are some of the key observations of the committee members and recommendations of the task force, which shape the Alberta government's policy to this day -- to the detriment, it is argued here, of public education in this province.

To start, the report lists "freedom of choice" as a "guiding concept" and argues that since private schools "complement our public school system" they "contribute to the public good."

Therefore, the committee concluded, private schools -- regardless of the tuition they charge -- should receive 60 per cent of the basic instructional grant, which the report described as "an appropriate balance."

Accordingly, it recommended that:

-    Private schools should continue to receive public funding.

-    Funding for private schools should be tied to funding for public schools, at a rate of 60 per cent.

-    That "private schools should continue to have the right to select students" – noting that the committee believes 'private schools are private… the ability to select their own students is fundamental to the nature of private schools."

-    That freedom of information laws should not apply to publicly funded private schools

-    That “funded private schools can set tuition fees with no limits set by the government" -- and, moreover, that “this is a matter that should be left to parents and the private schools they choose." (If this seems like a contradiction with the idea private school parents deserve subsidies because of the additional financial burden they face, it didn’t seem to bother the task force.)

Some readers will be untroubled by the report's recommendations, as well as the fact the premier's current views so clearly continue to mirror them. I suspect this will include many supporters of the Wildrose Party, as well as some of the government's backers.

But for parents and other citizens concerned about funding public education, especially in times when austerity is loudly demanded by some interests in society, the attitudes expressed in this report and the policies derived from them should be a matter of serious concern.

Perhaps they deserve a second look, even after this long span of time.

NOTE TO READERS: I apologize for being unable to provide a link to this document, which as readers would expect covers much more than the key points I have mentioned here. However, it seems to have disappeared from easily accessed online sites where it once resided, and I only have a single paper copy. Perhaps a reader with a copy in electronic form can send it to me, at which point I will be delighted to post a link with this story. The entire report deserves to be read in full.


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

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