Education reform in Alberta must be grounded in facts, not rhetoric

The agendas of special interests groups will do nothing to improve education

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By Deani Van Pelt
and Jason Clemens
The Fraser Institute

VANCOUVER, BC Jun 25, 2015/ Troy Media/ – Expectations are growing in many circles that the new NDP government in Alberta will be transformative. Several interest groups are beginning to place markers about the direction and degree of change they expect from the Notley government in education.

The key to any successful transformation, however, is that it’s based on facts rather than wishful thinking. Unfortunately, much of the rhetoric surrounding education reform is rooted in ideology and special interests.

Concern about independent schools misguided

Mark Ramsankar, the head of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, for instance, recently reiterated his organization’s concerns regarding public money being used to support Alberta parents who choose to send their children to independent schools. These concerns are generally in line with comments made by Deron Bilous, the former NDP education critic, who argued that independent schools shouldn’t receive any public funding.

These types of comments are premised on two perceptions that simply don’t accord with facts. The first is that spending on independent schools drains resources away from the public education system.

education reform
The needs of students and parents should guide education reform

The basic math of this argument doesn’t add up. Parents choosing independent schools receive only a partial grant to offset private tuition costs. Specifically, accredited independent schools in Alberta receive either 60 or 70 per cent of the equivalent operating cost per pupil for public schools in the region.

And this funding only covers operating costs, not capital costs, so the overall contribution is actually less than 60 to 70 per cent. Put simply, the provincial treasury saves between 30 and 40 per cent of the operating cost of every student attending an independent school plus the entirety of capital costs.

The second faulty premise is that Alberta doesn’t spend enough on education. Again, this assertion doesn’t comport with the facts. In 2011-12, the most recent year of available data, Alberta spent more per student than any other province on public K-12 education – $13,497 per student in 2011-12 compared to the $11,835 national average.

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And over the prior decade, per pupil spending in Alberta for public schooling increased 82.5 per cent; only three provinces experienced a higher growth in government spending on public schools over this period.

Ramsankar’s comments support the constituency he represents, namely unionized teachers whose interests are served by having more students in the public education system. This is distinct from advocating for the best education system possible for parents and students.

Finally, it’s worthwhile noting the contrasts between the education system in Alberta and neighbouring B.C.

Alberta is one of only three provinces that provide fully-funded Catholic education, and one of only two provinces that provide fully-funded French Catholic education, within the public (and unionized) system. Meanwhile, B.C., which has more than two-and-a-half times the percentage of students attending independent schools, offers religious and a plethora of other choices in education for parents through independent schools – not the public system, like in Alberta.

Hollow rhetoric no way to achieve education reform

This model is considerably less expensive. B.C. spends 85 per cent of what Alberta does on a per pupil basis, with comparable education performance. And the 12.0 per cent of students in independent schools in B.C. underestimates parental demand since more than half of independent schools surveyed in 2011 indicated a wait list for entry.

Hollow rhetoric rooted in narrow special interests will not improve education for Alberta parents and their children. Any reform must be grounded in facts, which indicate that Alberta is spending more than any other province on K-12 education and that students attending independent schools save the public treasury rather than siphoning off financial resources.

Deani Van Pelt is the director of the Barbara Mitchell Centre for Improvement in Education at the Fraser Institute and Jason Clemens is the Executive Vice President.

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