Public funding for private schools should end

By Janet Keeping

Private schools in Alberta receive 70% of the per-pupil grant given to public schools in the province.  The Alberta School Board Association (ASBA) recently called for the end of this public funding to private schools.  This is a very good idea.

The ASBA makes a financial case for reallocating the money currently spent on private schools to the public system arguing that scarce resources would be better spent on the school system that is open to all children.  But this is not the best justification for the policy change.  If the termination of public funding led to the closure of any private schools – and while some would assuredly remain open, some probably would not – then more money might have to be spent on the public system to accommodate the greater number of students served by it.

But ending public financing of private schools is the right way to go regardless, because public funding for private schools undermines the very purpose of having a public education system.

By definition public money should only be spent to advance public policy objectives.  The public policy objective in running an education system is to ensure that children receive the education they need for self-development and to enable them to make a contribution to the economy through their work and to grow into citizens capable of fulfilling their civic obligations to each other and to the community as a whole.

But why not just require parents to have their children educated, one way or the other?  Why maintain an education system with public funds?  One answer is that not all parents would or (financially) could provide for their children’s education were the state not to provide schools.  However, there is a deeper purpose served by a publicly constituted and operated system – one connected with the strength of our democracy and the humanity of our society.  This is to ensure that children grow and learn together with others different from themselves, that children learn how to understand, respect and deal with people from different backgrounds before they take on the responsibilities of adulthood.  We need public education to nurture a sense of community rich enough to keep our democracy healthy.

In no country is this function of public education more important than here in Canada where we have one of the most diverse populations in the world.  Learning to appreciate, live with and make decisions together with others from very different backgrounds – perhaps most importantly, with children from families of very different degrees of poverty or wealth – is essential to keeping our society functioning in a sympathetically democratic way.  This is accomplished in large part through a public education system.

Private schools on the other hand segregate children along lines that inhibit click here the development of that democratic sympathy, for example, along religious, gender, cultural and wealth lines.  The most egregious religious segregation flows from the existence of our separate (Catholic) school system.  But ending separate schools would require a change to Alberta’s constitution.  So that particular reform has to be the subject of a different discussion.

Even if the public funding of private schools were to end, there would have to be exceptions for schools that serve the special needs of learning-disabled children for whom the public system does not have appropriate resources.   And the choice to put your child in a private school or to home-school should remain:  there has to be a “way out” for families who firmly believe their children do not belong in the public schools.  But public funding for private schools, other than those needed for pedagogical reasons, encourages the existence of those schools and draws students away from the public system.

Funding for private schools should be ended gradually so as to give those schools, and the families and the children they currently serve, time to adjust.  It could be phased out, for example, over a seven-year period, with funding reduced from 70% to 60% in the first year, 60% to 50% in the second year, and so on, until funding has been eliminated.  But there may be other, better formulae for accomplishing the same.

The fact that ending the public funding for private schools might result in more money having to be spent on the public system is not an answer to the call for this change in public policy.  We could save money in many dangerous ways – for example, holding elections is expensive, but doing away with them is out of the question.

Public education is an essential ingredient to successful, modern societies.  Undermining that education system by spending our collective resources on private schools is self-defeating and Albertans should demand the present policy be ended.


This opinion piece was first posted on Troy Media’s website at



Comments 24

  • I am 100% in favor of your advocacy to eliminate public funding for private schools. It can only promote classisim, racism, and separate our society from each other.

    • You make it sound like just because people have a different opinion towards school than you do, that we are raciest, unaccepting and judge you by how much money you have. I disagree I was raised in the public system and failed miserable until by a miracle i was accepted into a private college and excelled. with a 3.9 gpa The public school I went to had all the elements you referred to it was raciest , unaccepting and very much cared about our financial status. So people who think that the public school system is the mecca of a melding pot are sadly mistaken. People who have a different perspective make life interesting, I say bring on those who think for themselves. These who desirer to make everyone the same, should have lived in communist Russia because it would be a perfect fir for them. I prefer to be an individual thinking and will stand up for my right to do so.

      • Thanks very much for your comment, Sherryl. I am aware that schools — any school, be it public, private, religious, whatever, in focus — can be miserable places for kids. Our job as caring citizens (and caring parents and grandparents, of course) is to try to ensure they are good places, not bad places. I don’t think there’s any doubt that it would be better if we pulled together in our communities to make sure the local public school is as good as it can be.

        I don’t think everyone should be the same. Indeed I suspect the best school system would give teachers and parents a big role (a bigger role than they have now) in shaping what goes on in the local school. Certain ethical principles and academic standards should be the same across the province (just as we have human rights laws that apply across the province and driving tests that apply across the province) but otherwise there should be lots of latitude for creative and diverse approaches to learning.

        I don’t think it helps to call people names — such as “communist.” But respectful exchanges of opinion are the way to go.

  • Great plan. If you’d like to know more of the Alberta Liberals policies, why don’t you join us and help get rid of the tired old government we have and their dysfunctional cousins in Wild Rose.
    We have lots to do and need more people who care about this province and what we’re leaving for future generations.

    • Helen, This is an area where the Liberals have good policy in place but there are many other areas where Greens and Liberals would not agree. But thanks so much for commenting on my opinion piece.

  • My Daughter went to a public school up to grade 4. Her grades were not good, bullying was a problem and her teacher ignored the problems. I was only making $12/hr when I paid for her to go to a private school. All of the problems stopped. She loved her new school/teacher. The students dressed and behaved differently. The difference was not race or class, it was being surrounded by kids whose parents cared about them, and valued their education. There were long lineups to see the teacher at parent teacher day.
    My daughter asked to go to a regular high school (to be with her friends in the neighborhood). She was shocked to see a drug transaction in the school hallway. She did not like the school as much and her grades dropped.
    I wish her entire education had been in private schools.
    Swapping private school money to public schools would not have changed anything in her public elementary school, or her public high school.
    Pandering to unions at the expense of parents who care about their kids is a poor party platform.

    • Hi, Jon. I quite agree that problems can arise in any particular school and for any particular student. For example, I have friends who put their children in private schools only to take them out when the private school proved quite unsatisfactory. The fact that a particular family has had trouble with any particular school really doesn’t tell us very much for public policy purposes.
      I think parents and children should be able to vote with their feet by leaving one public school and going to another. I have seen this work in my neighbourhood where one elementary school was thought considerably better than another. Many families took this view and sent their children to the better one which had the effect over time of improving the one that had not been as good. The two schools are now of very similar quality. I can see the role for that kind of “competition” within the public school system. And I have argued in my piece that there should remain the possibility for private schools (and home schooling) but that public money should not be spent on them.
      To my mind an important point is that when families leave the public system when one school has let them down in some way they remove the pressure for improvement to the public system.
      I don’t understand the point about pandering to unions. Perhaps you could explain this point. The ASBA is not a union; it is the association of school boards, not teachers.

  • I am NOT in agreement on this approach. Certainly any private school which is not open to any applicant, should be examined. Generally however, the 70% funding seems about right. The child get educated at a lesser cost to the taxpayer; the public school system will have the motivation of a little competition and a free laboratory for alternate approaches.
    Many private scholars are funded by parents in very modest financial circumstances who make ‘choices’ aka sacrifices, because public schools are not delivering what they want.

    • Garry, I’d say that private schools are open only to those that can pay the fee. Hence, they aren’t open to just anybody. They discriminate on the basis of ability to pay. We already have a serious problem of a growing gap between rich and poor in Canada, especially in Alberta. We sure don’t need to move any further in that direction. In fact one would hope we move in the opposite one.
      Lesser cost to the tax payer is not the only consideration, as I argued in my piece. If it (lesser cost to the taxpayer) were the only consideration or even the most important one, there would be a strong argument for eliminating the public system. Since that is a really bad idea, I think we have to agree that lesser cost to taxpayer is only one consideration among many and by no means the most important.
      I agree that there should be room for some degree of competition but that can be achieved within the public system, as long as parents have choice as to the public school to which they can send their children. And I argued in my blog that there should be the option for private schooling, but not at public expense, and also for home schooling.

      • Let me see if I’m understanding your position correctly:
        Let me see if I’m understanding your argument correctly:

        1) Private schools are only open to those who can afford to pay. This is a form of discrimination and just increases the gap between the rich and the poor.

        2) Because of this discrimination, public funding should be removed from private schools and provided to free schools.

        Am I correct so far? If so, here is the consequence of removing funding:

        *The only private schools will be those whose tuition fees will rise considerably due to no longer receiving government funding and will therefore only be available to the wealthiest.

        This, of course, contradicts the first point, that the problem is that not everybody can afford to go. Well, now even fewer people can afford to go. Given private schools do tend to have better educational outcomes, smaller class sizes, programs the public schools don’t (and often won’t or can’t) offer, then only the wealthiest will be able to take advantage of such an education. Therefore, in regards to educational choice, the gap between the rich and the poor will be even greater than it is now. Providing funding to approved private schools helps even out the playing field.

      • to avoid what you call “discrimination” for the less fortunate, don’t you think this is exactly why tax payers money should be directed at a public OR private school of their choice, so the fact that they can only pay 300-400$/month shouldn’t be a reason why they can’t attend a private school. I operate a private school and have many students who under pay because they are less fortunate, and that is not a reason for us not to accept them. yes we work non-profit. but at least we do good for the community.

  • There are so many problems with this piece, I will simply work my way through what I can.

    First of all, Alberta private schools do not get 70% of the funding that public schools do, so right off the bat, you are presenting false–or incomplete–information. The accredited schools meeting level 2 accountability level can get 70%; accredited schools meeting level 1 can get 60%. There is also the possibility in the province of having accredited schools without funding and non-accredited (registered) schools without funding. You can not lump them all together.

    Next, there is a clear lack of understanding about the private school system in Alberta and why private schools get funding: they get funding because they are following the Alberta Program of Studies just like public schools do and have met the requirements for accreditation. This is a means of encouraging private schools to meet the education goals of the province; the funding is an incentive to be providing the same base curriculum as in the public schools. This means that the basic content covered in both public and private schools is the same. Private schools in Alberta do not have to get funding; the only way they can get funding is by meeting the outcomes from the Alberta Program of Studies and meeting all kinds of other requirements. In this regard, they are providing at least as much of a basic education as the public schools–at a lower cost to the government.

    Why do private schools exist in Alberta? They exist because we live in a free, democratic country where these schools are allowed to exist and having private schools provides more options for families. We live in a diverse society; it is only natural that to respect that diversity, the education system will be diverse. Private schools can offer different educational models approaches or provide a different focus than what is typically available in public schools, often with smaller class sizes. Some schools simply want to have more local control over how the school is run instead of having to deal with the bureaucracy of a large school board. Some schools add on additional subjects and programs that public schools don’t offer. If such programs existed in the public schools and were as effective in all the red tape that comes with having such programs in public schools, there would be far fewer funded private schools in the province. If the public schools want those students back, then they need to be offering such programs and cut some/a lot of the bureaucracy.

    “Private schools on the other hand segregate children along lines that inhibit the development of that democratic sympathy, for example, along religious, gender, cultural and wealth lines.”

    Are you also opposed to all-girls and all-boys programs that exist within some public schools? How about the religious programs that exist in some public schools? The language programs that will be primarily students of immigrant families? Or the aboriginal programs? I see no reason why an all-girls program in any type of school would inhibit “democratic sympathy.” I see no reason why having a Muslim or Christian program within any type of school would inhibit democratic sympathy. And I am throughly confused as to why you seem to want uniform programs throughout the province in the name of diversity.

    If you go to just about any private school, you will find a mix of children. The idea that private schools segregate children and keep them in homogenous groups is a mistaken one. The idea that everybody in any particular group is “the same” is also a mistaken one. Just within a single family there can be many differences. Furthermore, the idea that children will automatically be with children of different socioeconomic backgrounds in a public school and won’t be in a private school is false. Public schools are typically neighbourhood schools. Neighbourhoods very often have families of very similar socioeconomic status. The poor neighbourhoods tend to have children from poor families; the wealthier neighbourhoods tend to have wealthier students. The kids in the wealthiest areas will still not be interacting with those from the poorest neighbourhoods. This imagined ideal of people from all walks interacting together in a public school is not based on any sort of reality. Students do not spend most of their day interacting with all of these different kids–they are sitting in desks and doing as the teacher asks, which is not usually collaborative work with other students. They don’t even necessarily know the socioeconomic status of the other students in the class so they aren’t “learning to appreciate, live with and make decisions together with others from … families of very different degrees of poverty or wealth” in such a way that they actually see it as, “Oh, I’m well off and he’s not but we still get along!” Besides, there is also absolutely no basis for believing that students who do not interact with others from different socioeconomic backgrounds in school will have trouble doing so as adults.

    The idea of gradually removing the funding from private schools is really just a way to gradually move most families from private to public schools and essentially close all or almost all private schools. Let’s face it: these private schools that are offering different learning models and focuses than available in public schools would cost families much more per year and most families simply would not be able to afford them. It is likely not just someprivate schools that would close, but most. It would create a true inequality in that the only people left who would be able to send their children to a private school, the only people left who would have that choice, would be among the wealthiest whereas a middle class family can now afford it and in some cases, there are provisions available to help families with low incomes have their children attend. Such a move would actually remove school choice in Alberta. Removal of choice is, in my opinion, the result of a lack of democratic sympathy. What could be more democratic than providing parents with the freedom to choose among valid options?

    Have you ever been to a Catholic or private school? Do you know what sort of children go to these schools? There are non-Catholics in the Catholic schools. Kids come from all around the neighbourhood just like the public schools. It is not an exclusive club. The Catholic schools are essentially public schools that are allowed to include a religious component into the students’ daily lives. This is not segregating. I have seen groups of private school students on field trips; they are no different than groups of public schooled students, other than perhaps the uniform in some cases. (But even with that, some public school programs require a uniform, so, they aren’t really different.)

    This article, honestly, smacks of communism or even fascism: The idea that there should be a single education system that all children are a part of, the one that the government is running. This is highly reminiscent of Nazi Germany closing all private schools in the name of promoting their ideology. Your position also smacks of anti-religious sentiment, as though there is something wrong with children being in schools that represent their faith and instead should be in the secular environment that government can provide. This, too, is what communist and fascist governments seek.

    The purpose you see behind public education is not a purpose everybody else sees or believes in. It is certainly not one I agree with and I say this having been trained as a teacher in the province–not once did I ever come across such a sentiment. It is certainly not a purpose the government agrees with otherwise the diverse programs that exist, that “segregate” in a way that you find “egregious” in some cases would cease. That your perspective is not being reflected in the current system does not mean that the education system–and ultimately Alberta’s children–is being undermined by helping families have their children attend government-accredited private schools.

    Yes, there needs to be a public education system available so that everybody has the opportunity to be educated and not just those who can afford it. But we live in a democracy where, clearly, people have chosen and continue to choose having these different options available. The truly democratic thing to do is to allow the people to continue to have what they have essentially already voted for.

    • Hi, Daisy. You’ve made a number of points that I can’t do justice right now. I think the best thing would be for me to write a blog that answers, according to how I see things, the points that you raise. I promise to do that within the next week or so.

      • Well said Daisy! I totally agree with you. I’m very disappointed that the Green Party is heading that way. It is anti-democratic and against diversity to remove the parent’s choice.

    • Well said Daisy. This is the wolf in sheeps clothing, the very start of communist and atheist logic, and the creating of that kind of society. A quick visit to history confirms that when non state education is restricted diversity begins to wane in one way or another. Allowing parents to choose what path of education they wish their child to take solidifies diversity.
      If the government sets out a list of outcomes that they want students to have they should provide funding to any form of education that promotes those outcomes. The higher price for private education is for the extra’s, not the basic education, the smaller class sizes, the ability for the teacher to actually have time for your child, the added arts and culture. If it’s a problem that not everyone can afford this the solution is not to eliminate what is better, but to fix what is wrong with the public system. We need to cut government spending on frivolities before we cut on the essentials.

    • My opinion doesn’t count anymore, since I’m not actually in the province anymore, but coming from a Homeschooler, I have to agree with everything Daisy said. I was gonna post and say pretty much the same thing, but she said it a thousand times better than I could have.

      Parents should have the ability and right to choose the method of their child’s education. By removing public funding, you are restricting that choice to the very few people who can actually afford it.

  • A strong, Green government should increase personal empowerment, not diminish it.

    A policy which homogenates the population invites dystopia. Frankly, the opposite of your position would be more principled — that the government should get out of the education delivery business. It would be far more respectful to simply transfer Alberta’s second largest budget expenditure item to the people of Alberta for spending on education options of their choosing.

  • My daughter did not fit well in the large public high school she started in. Toward the end of her first year, she was skipping all classes but one. She and I got recommendations from different sources for the Alternative High School – in the public system. It was very small, teachers were addressed by first name, respect for everyone was a high priority, and democracy extended to the students having a say on many matters they wouldn’t in a ‘regular’ school. My daughter loved it, did well, went on to complete a post-secondary degree at MRU. So I agree with Janet about the considerable range of choice in the public system.

    Still, I am not certain where I stand on this issue. I have friends who, like Jon, chose to put their children in a private school even though they had to live very frugally to pay for it. And I was struck by an article in the G&M that demonstrated a clear correspondence between the average income in a neighborhood and the academic achievement of the students there. A public school in a wealthy neighbourhood might have no more diversity in the student population than a private school.

    Two suggestions: 1. Reduce the per-student subsidy in private schools to something more in line with other provinces, since I understand that Alberta’s 70% is the highest in Canada. 2. Make it easy for parents to access information about the range of choice in the public system.

  • The comments thus far have been interesting. Our children were, in part, educated in private schools. Schools more in keeping with what we believe children should be taught as it pertains to our lives. We found the public system to be lacking in many areas, in particular to faith based education whatever it might be. I noted one comment earlier that these private schools encouraged classism and racism. I found this, in part to be true of the public system as well. Even when I was in public high school and that was many, many years ago, I was forbidden to talk about my beliefs as they pertained to Jesus Christ. My best friend, a Jew, was not permitted to discuss his either. I was subject to ridicule from other students and some teachers alike, but it was nothing compared to what my friend had to put up with. I have found that racism or classism is not necessarily related to an education system but to who you are. Private schools are necessary for those who want more out of education as it relates to who they are.. It is not for the rich or for the poor but simply a choice.

  • Great Article Janet!

    Keep up the awesome work.

  • The Green Party of Alberta is currently crafting our new policy. Participatory democracy is one of our core principles and this conversation shows how effectively that works. If you would care to join our policy team we would be most appreciative of your help.

    We all share the same goal – helping our children develop to their full potential. There is little that is more important or complex than education. Our Global Green Charter encourages “individual empowerment” and “building grassroots institutions that enable decisions to be made directly at the appropriate level by those most affected”.

    The carrot has always proven to be more effective than the stick. What can we learn from exemplary educational systems like the one in Finland? How can we raise the bar in this province so the development of children becomes the predominant focus. Particularly in the junior grades, location is the huge determinate of class composition. How does that influence outcomes?

    Over ¼ of our students are opting out of the public system. Why? Stable funding, smaller classes, respected, well qualified teachers might provide some of the answers. Who should determine where our taxes go? Who should determine the courses of study for our children?

    Please come along and help us think outside the box and develop the best educational policy in Canada.

    Diann Duthie
    Green Party of Alberta Policy Chair

  • If you wish to have your child in a Catholic, Protestant, Muslim or any other private school, it should be on Sunday after mass. There cannot be any connection between church and state.

  • My understanding of your position is that private schools should not receive government funding in order to push more students into the public school system, thus strengthening democracy. I disagree.

    As I’m sure you are aware, personal freedoms are a fundamental aspect of a functioning democracy. Citizens must have freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and freedom of association. However, simply allowing them to think and say things is insufficient: they must be permitted to actually live their lives according to their thoughts and beliefs.
    For many people, raising their children is one of the most important, most meaningful contributions to society that can make. Children are a precious treasure, and educating them is a sacred trust. Since there are already laws requiring children to attend school from age 6 to 16, it strikes me as Orwellian to insist that parents who supposedly have freedom of conscience and freedom of association turn over their children to a government employee to study government-provided curricula for 30 hours a week, 10 months a year, 10 years in a row. In order to even pretend that parents have “freedoms,” they must have real choices available for how to educate their children. It’s not freedom if there is no choice but to submit to the government-mandated educational system.

    Other people have already made the point that eliminating government funding of private schools would make them inaccessible to all but the wealthiest. As it is, many people of modest incomes are able to access private schools, providing them with a choice.

    You very eloquently describe the public schools as a place where children learn to live with and make decisions together with others of very different backgrounds, thus learning to respect diversity. Frankly, my 13 year-old daughter laughed out loud when I read that to her. Her experience of a large public school in Edmonton was that there is very little tolerance of diversity, and enormous pressure to conform to both the school’s values, teachers’ values and to peer opinion.

    The truth is that families that choose private schools ARE the “diverse” population you’re talking about. They are consciously choosing life outside the mainstream. They understand diversity because they are the living example of it, and they have to learn to get along with everyone in the mainstream in every aspect of their lives.

    Also, before you radically limit the educational choices of families in the name of democracy, I would like some facts. I am curious to know who is more likely to participate in our democracy – public-schooled graduates or private schooled graduates? Which group is more likely to vote, write letters to their politicians, or become involved in a political party? Is there any evidence that your method of forcing students into the public students would actually work to strengthen democracy?

    Personally, I would advocate for fewer restrictions on government funding of private schools. I have looked into private schools for my own children and find that they are too much like the public system. Because I can’t find the type of program that I would like for my children in either the public or private systems, I have chosen to homeschool.

  • I completely disagree with this sentiment. I am a volunteer board member on a board that runs an independent school. Our school is run tirelessly by volunteers and amazing staff. Part of the philosophy of our school is making alternative education accessible to ANYONE. Our tuition system is donation-based, as in, pay-what-you can. This allows families from all walks of life to attend our school. The removal of funding would destroy this system, would force us to charge tuition, and would push out more than half of our families. Our school is full, because people are tired with problems in the public system, and are searching for something else. Eliminating all other affordable options seems incredibly narrow-minded and backwards.