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By Deani Van Pelt
and Derek J. Allison
The Fraser Institute

Alberta is recognized internationally for educational choice – a reputation recently reaffirmed by the provincial government, which supported a “parental choice” motion in the legislature. However, in a province awash with choice in public government-run schooling, the choices offered by independent schools, and the option of homeschooling, are often overlooked.

Alberta’s education sector has been marked by two decades of expanding choice in the government-run system. Charter schools were added in 1994, and despite caps on the number of schools enrolment has grown four-fold. Public school boards, especially in Edmonton, reformed to include a wide variety of alternative schools, including religious-based education and curriculum diversity.

Deani Van Pelt

Subsequently, government schools dominate the landscape. For example, English and French public school boards together now enroll more than two-thirds of the Alberta’s students (70.1 percent in 2012/13) and the fully-funded English Catholic public schools enroll almost another quarter (23.3 percent).

And yet, even with all the government sector education choice, two non-government education providers in the province stand out. Homeschooling, which continues to grow in popularity and now includes a diversity of blended education programs, accounted for 1.4 percent of enrolments in 2012/13. Alberta has the largest share of homeschooled students of any province, a reminder that this choice option is especially important to Alberta parents.

In 2013/14, Alberta was also home to 145 independent schools, outside of the public government-run system. These independent schools served 28,076 students – or 4.4 percent of all students in the province.

Derek Allison

The numbers raise an obvious question. Why does almost one in 20 Albertan students attend an independent school when so much choice is provided in the public system?

The answer lies in the nature of independent schools in Alberta. Contrary to stereotype, a very small percentage of independent schools in Alberta (4.8 percent) cater to the elite in the form of traditional university preparatory schools. According to a recent Fraser Institute study based on provincial data for every independent school Canada, the remaining 95 percent of independent schools in Alberta are religious-based, offer alternative approaches to teaching and learning, and/or focus on special education.

More specifically, almost half of all Alberta independent schools (49 percent) have a religious orientation – 81.7 percent are Christian (non-Catholic), 5.6 percent are Catholic, 5.6 percent Islamic, and 4.2 percent Jewish and the remaining 2.8 percent had other religious perspectives. Clearly the desire of parents to have their children educated in a religious environment not satisfactorily provided by the government-run system remains a driving force in Alberta’s independent school scene. In addition, more than a quarter of independent schools feature a specialty emphasis. For example, one in eight independent schools in Alberta focus on special needs students. The remaining schools offer special approaches to teaching and learning (Montessori, Waldorf, etc.) or distinct subject emphases such as the arts, athletics or STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

Despite Alberta’s high level of choice in the government-run public school system, independent schools make a unique and vital contribution to the education landscape, increasing the options for Alberta families.

Deani Van Pelt and Derek J. Allison are co-authors of the recently released study A Diverse Landscape: Independent Schools in Canada.

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