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Time to stop wasting Alberta taxpayers' dollars on elite private and cherry-picking charter schools

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Progressive Conservative Party interim Leader Ric McIver has introduced a motion demanding the Alberta Legislature continue pouring more than $200 million a year into elite private schools, charter schools and home schooling schemes.

Of course, that's not quite the way McIver's motion is worded.

Private Member’s Motion No. 504 asks 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." (Emphasis added.)

In conservative circles nowadays, the word "choice" when applied to education and health care is usually code for privatization or conditions that encourage privatization. So McIver's effort to lump together public, separate and francophone education, which are today all part of the public education system, with home, private and charter education is a not very successful sleight of hand.

The idea, presumably, is to allow the PCs to claim the NDP doesn't support public education if its MLAs vote against the motion, even though the most likely result of such a vote would be to reduce funding to public education. So it's a kind of political parlour trick unlikely to fool its intended audience.

In other words, it's designed to present the government of Premier Rachel Notley with a problem. Instead, i'’s said here, it has handed the NDP a wonderful opportunity to do the right thing and benefit the province.

Let me explain:

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.

There's a good reason we’re alone on this. It's 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 government of Ralph Klein in 1995 as part of its neoliberal 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.

Cash for charter schools continues to be supported by PCs, obviously, and by the Wildrose Party as well, which is influenced by the same delusion that private services are always better than public services.

Unfortunately, it also continues to be government policy, a legacy of decades of PC rule, even though the NDP, Liberals and Alberta Party have all explicitly opposed it at one time or another in the past.

Meanwhile, over the years, the PCs also ratcheted up direct public support of 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.

Back in 2008, long before he was the last PC premier of Alberta, Jim Prentice was one of the authors of a report that made just such specious arguments.

Fast forward to the present. Today we have low oil prices persisting worldwide and costs that exceed revenues to the point Alberta is expecting a budget deficit of $10 billion or higher. And yet the very same conservative parties who scream about the need for cutbacks to services for all Albertans so we can enjoy the dubious benefits of scrupulously balanced budgets are demanding the government continue to spend $226 million every year bankrolling elite charter and private schools!

What’s wrong with this picture?

Last spring, NDP Education Minister David Eggen said he had no plans to roll back funding for private and charter schools. But that was then and this is now. Back then, the government was also sticking by its plans for a $15-per-hour minimum wage and vowing there would be no cutbacks to public expenditures in education and health care.

Now, after a year of very little relief on oil prices and unremitting shrieking by the parties of the right about the desperate need for cuts, cuts, cuts -- never mind the fact this flies in the face of economic common sense about what to do to keep the economy ticking in a recession -- the NDP is starting to sound very much as if it is backtracking on some of these commitments.

The government has already dropped its longstanding support for a fair resource royalty structure. It also refuses to consider the sales tax that is needed to end Alberta's dependence on the proverbial resource-price rollercoaster. Well, maybe some other commitments from a year ago need to go over the side now too!

What better candidate for a little fat trimming than the more than a quarter billion dollars we spend on private and charter schools that benefit only a tiny special interest group?

Surely it's time to put that money back where it belongs: in public education, which benefits us all.

Naturally, supporters of private privilege for the well connected few -- not very many of whom are likely to support the NDP in any circumstances -- would scream bloody murder. So one can understand why the NDP might have wanted to let this sleeping dog lie.

But McIver's motion has placed it clearly on the public agenda, and that is why I say an opportunity has been presented to the NDP. What better time, then, to listen to its allies, supporters and potential supporters and stop this waste of our tax dollars?

As recently as 2013, the Alberta School Boards Association passed a motion calling for all funds handed to private and charter schools to be reallocated to public education. What a great moment to listen to these committed and knowledgeable citizens.

We should be grateful to McIver for giving our government an opportunity that may never be repeated to tell supporters of elite private and charter schools that we feel their pain, but we've listened to the people of Alberta and we just can't afford this luxury in our current financial circumstances.

Publicly funded two-tier education is a harmful and unaffordable relic of Alberta's Tory past. There’s no time like hard times to put an end to it.

If some Albertans insist on sending their kids to private schools, we should tell them they're welcome to do so … as long as they're prepared to pay for it themselves. 

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

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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