Now the public’s tuned in, it’ll be hard to put a lid back on discussion of rich subsidies to ritzy private schools

Posted on March 09, 2017, 1:29 am
7 mins

PHOTOS: An illustration grabbed from the Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School’s website. The elite private school charges annual tuition of $21,000 per year per student … and received more than $20 million in subsidies from Alberta taxpayers over five years! Below: Alberta Education Minister David Eggen, Edmonton School Trustee Michael Janz and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.

Conservative private school supporters, home schoolers and members of other education special interest groups who teamed up with conservative opposition parties to try to embarrass Alberta’s New Democratic Party Government last summer appear to have unintentionally brought intense public scrutiny to their own excessive public funding.

Groups like Brian Coldwell’s Baptist Christian Education Society were likely not even all that concerned about funding when they picked a public fight with the government in August. Rev. Coldwell, who is also associated with Parents for Choice in Education, seemed mainly to have been upset with Education Minister David Eggen’s plan to enforce a law allowing students to form gay-straight alliances in their schools that had been passed by the Progressive Conservatives back when the late Jim Prentice was premier.

Nevertheless, all of a sudden there’s active, vocal, widespread opposition to the largest public subsidies in Canada for private schools and dubious ideological home-schooling experiments in education, the product of more than four decades of Tory rule in Alberta. The dots are just so easy to connect!

What’s more, the scrutiny and public anger about Alberta giving 70 per cent of the per-student public school grant to private school students has spread to groups that had no part in the initial rather crude attacks on the NDP.

So it was the huge sums of public cash lavished on elite private schools that charge more than $10,000 per student per year in tuition and the costs of Roman Catholic school boards that were coming under fire yesterday.

Like Pandora’s Box, it won’t be easy for any of these groups to put the lid back on public discussion of the millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded subsidies they continue to receive, thanks to the legacy of Alberta’s four-decade Tory Dynasty.

Yesterday morning, Progress Alberta published a list of 15 Alberta private schools that charge more than $10,000 per student and yet received millions of dollars in Tory-era legacy subsidies for their elite programs while public schools struggled to cover the basics.

What the schools on the list offer for the big bucks include groomed ski trails, horse riding instruction, golf teams and, of course, tiny classes.

Meanwhile, Progress Alberta said, “public schools deal with hungry children and classrooms with 30 plus students.”

An earlier piece by the Edmonton-based activist group focused on the Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School near Okotoks, just south of Calgary, which charges tuition in excess of $21,000 per year per student – and which received more than $20.5 million in public subsidies from Alberta taxpayers over five academic years!

About all the opposition parties have to defend this excess is the risible claim such schools offer “choice,” and, you know, choice is good.

The same day, former Edmonton Public School Board chair Michael Janz was taking advantage of the renewed interest in school funding to argue the province has been favouring Catholic schools over public schools in capital funding decisions.

Mr. Janz, who is still an Edmonton school trustee, told reporters at an Edmonton news conference this pattern of unequal spending in favour of separate schools has artificially inflated the enrollment in Catholic education because parents are “forced into that choice between sending their kid to a Catholic school or sending them on a long bus ride to a public school.”

“The government should be ensuring that public students and public families get their fair share,” he asserted.

Between 2011 and 2016, Janz told reporters, 38 per cent of the money spent on school construction projects in the Capital Region went to Catholic schools, while about 25 per cent of the population was Catholic, and 17 per cent of voters indicated they wanted their taxes to support Catholic schools.

Ironically, given the way this started, the attention attracted to subsidies for ritzy private schools in particular may even have handed the NDP an effective wedge issue to use against the Wildrose and PC Parties.

But no matter what their political enemies claim, I’m certain the NDP Government would be as happy if the school funding issue just went away.

Premier Notley is a canny but cautious political operator, and she certainly realizes that as wedge issues go, this one comes with significant risks.

Still, it may have even bigger risks for the province’s right wing opposition, which is something they should have thought of when they and some of their politically motivated friends associated with generously funded religious private schools and home-schooling support groups decided to make an issue of it.

This just goes to show, particularly if you’re at 70 per cent of the per-student grant, the sweetest funding deal in Canada, it might have been smarter to let the proverbial sleeping dog lie.

Well, it’s too late now.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

29 Comments to: Now the public’s tuned in, it’ll be hard to put a lid back on discussion of rich subsidies to ritzy private schools

  1. Farmer B

    March 9th, 2017

    It is interesting how progress Alberta portrays student funding as a subsidy. With 675 students in Strathcona Tweedsmuir and 5200 dollars per student the yearly total is 3.51 million dollars. They recieve 70% of what the average public school receives per student and no capital funding. I found it interesting that Peter Lougheed went to the Strathcona school for boys, one of two schools that merged to form Strathcona Tweedsmuir. Did that make him an elitist?

    Reply
    • Athabascan

      March 9th, 2017

      Lougheed definitely came from a privileged (elite) class, but whether he had an elitist ideology is doubtful.

      That is not the same as saying he was a bad premier. There are many members of the elite class who are competent and even socially conscious, but they don’t subscribe to elitist ideas.

      But, yeah most people would agree that if you went to a private school that costs your parents that kind of money, then you probably belong to a socio-economic stratum that would be considered elite.

      Should tax money collected from lower and middle class citizens be used to educate elite kids at exclusive private schools? My answer is NSFW!

      Reply
    • St Albertan

      March 9th, 2017

      As far as funding goes, the wealthy people I know don’t need help from a tax pool that is supposed to fund “public” education. Most if not all, recognize that some of the most effective tax dollars they pay, go towards changing lives for the better within public schools and either way 5k is less than a weeks income. When some of my friends sent their children to out of province private schools they certainly didn’t bemoan the lack of envelope funding any more than they complained when their first trophy S Class gouged them for a replacement headlight.
      With regard to your “no capital funding” contention, I’d have to trace back tax and property records to ensure that this particular school has paid it’s fair share and hasn’t received in-ordinate breaks and gifts, like so many others have while turning a profit, so jury’s out on that one.
      Peter Lougheed was definitely an elite, academically, athletically, and intellectually but I highly doubt that any of his schools would dare take credit for his natural gifts.
      My real mystification though is, why would you want to beggar public services like health, education, and utilities for the benefit of people who have choices and can afford them? Aren’t the nine percent purple gas tax subsidy and roads that only a few use but all of us paid for, enough? How much “I’m all right jack” attitude is healthy for a society? If you want fiscal conservatism should we continue with the post modern (C)onservative “let’s all only help those who are me or somebody I like” strategy?

      Reply
    • Expat Albertan

      March 9th, 2017

      I’m not sure I understand your point… shouldn’t a private school receive zero public funding? Otherwise it would be public dollars supporting private profit, no?

      Reply
  2. J.E. Molnar

    March 9th, 2017

    One of the more enlightening stats in the Progress Alberta report is that many of these high-tuition schools also receive millions of dollars each year through charitable donations. It’s actually quite shocking.

    So donors whose children may attend these private schools are not only getting a subsidized school, they are also getting a tax break on any charitable contributions they may make as well. Since a tax break for a charitable donation equals a reduction in income tax, which is lost provincial income, I’d be interested in seeing the lost tax revenue figures associated these charitable donations.

    http://www.progressalberta.ca/the_elite_15

    Reply
    • Farmer B

      March 9th, 2017

      When I donate to a political party I also recieve a tax break should we end that as well?

      Reply
      • Val

        March 10th, 2017

        donation to political party is limited to $1,550 per year.
        max deductible sum is $650
        if one can fork $1550 in donation, how much sustainable their well being would become, after saving $650 in tax?

        Reply
      • J.E. Molnar

        March 10th, 2017

        Really stupid comment Farmer B. Political parties get one subsidy, not two like the private schools. Besides, you’re comparing apples and oranges. Nice deflection though.

        Reply
  3. tom in ontario

    March 9th, 2017

    You lucky Albertans. No provincial sales tax, no health levy, a flat provincial income tax, one of the lowest in the land. You can afford to pour millions into hoidy-toidy high tuition private schools with groomed ski trails and horseback riding, not to mention home and religious schools teaching whatever they teach.

    Ahhh, the land of milk and honey.

    Reply
    • Coach Bruce

      June 16th, 2017

      UTS, Upper Canada College, bSt> Andrews Applby College, ST. Michaels College, Bishop Strachan private girls school, just to name a few private schools in Ontario. I wonder what arrangements they have. Now the other problems you have are because you voted for the NDP for many years and then you have had the liberals for too many terms. Ontario use to be the economic engine of the country now it is becoming a have not province.

      Reply
  4. Jeff

    March 9th, 2017

    Not sure what the issue here is.

    These taxpayers are funding the school system just like any others. If they send their kid to a private school they have to pay thousands of dollars beyond the public portion of the bill. In fact the public portion of the bill is only 70% of the public system funding. Isn’t this saving 30% for taxpayers?

    Reply
    • tom in ontario

      March 9th, 2017

      That’s not the point. Unless the students in the public system are getting the same benefits as the private schoolers, like small class sizes, good learning conditions and up to date facilities, parents whose kids attend these welfare for the rich halls of learning should pony up the costs, not taxpayers.

      By the way, when will the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and “non partisan” Fraser Institute start screaming about private school pilfering of the public purse?

      Reply
    • Farmer B

      March 9th, 2017

      Remember government funds cannot be used for capital projects for private schools. In public schools the taxpayer foots the bill for building schools, a significant cost. Private schools supply their own infrastructure. At 5200 dollars that is less than half the cost per student in the Calgary Catholic system or the Calgary board of education. So actually Jeff the taxpayer saves over 50%.

      Just for the record my kids are grown up and all attended school in the public system.

      Reply
      • Expat Albertan

        March 10th, 2017

        But isn’t the point to save taxpayers 100% by having private schools pay for themselves? Especially sine the taxpayer is already paying for private schools?

        Reply
        • Jeff

          March 13th, 2017

          The taxpayer who sends their kids to a private school is a taxpayer too.

          If we are going to subsidize public education as a social good, then we should include everybody in the framework. If you decide to pull your kid out of public school and send them to a private school at a personal cost above what you are paying in taxes, why shouldn’t your portion of tax offset the cost?

          The kid still gets an education and the government pays less for the schooling…thus saving (overall) taxpayer dollars.

          Reply
    • Val

      March 9th, 2017

      mu guess it’s non monetary problem. rather ideological, when some political forces uses it to promote advances of private sector over public. since nearly all others public assets already have been sold out, now time to move to education, healthcare, possible in near future to privatize penitentiary system, law enforcement, justice and such. particularly if all of those have solid base of funding on behalf of taxpayers.

      Reply
    • Athabascan

      March 9th, 2017

      Wrong!

      It is the less fortunate taxpayers who end up subsidizing the rich. You forgot the fact that tuition for the privileged is tax deductible. Who do you think makes up the difference for that tax break?

      Look at it this way; every dollar a rich person saves in taxes that is a dollar a non-rich person has to make up for. If the government won’t tax the rich, or provides them with tax incentives/savings that other people don’t have, then the government will tax the rest of us to make up the shortfall.

      Public money should be used to support public endeavours. It shouldn’t be used to make rich people richer.

      Reply
    • Expat Albertan

      March 9th, 2017

      Parents would get to deduct their kids’ tuition from their income taxes, no?

      Reply
      • Farmer B

        March 11th, 2017

        For a private school to have a charitable status it must be registered as a non-profit organization. In this case your donations then recieve a tax receipt but the tuitions that parents pay are not tax deductible except if your child is attending a private school for medical reasons. It would appear that Strathcona-Tweedsmuir is run as a non-profit independent school due to its charitable status.

        I think as I look to the future a far bigger issue is developing a tax policy in relation to robots and other forms of technological replacement of workers. Think about it, a company can depreciate the cost of new automated equipment and at the same time eliminate wages and future costs like pensions. This will have a much larger negative affect on future governments ability to fund programs than for example funding private schools.

        Reply
        • anonymous

          March 13th, 2017

          ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’

          Reply
  5. Bob Raynard

    March 9th, 2017

    Alberta has the highest private school subsidy in Canada: we have yet one more area where Alberta is an outlier. Fiscal hawks like to point out that we have the highest paid public sector in the country to suggest lower salaries would be a way to reduce the government debt, but choose to say little about our level of taxation (lowest in Canada). I wonder how many of the people paying for a private school think the government is spending irresponsibly.

    Sadly, however, it comes down to politics. People who would like the government to reduce the private school subsidy are unlikely to take their vote elsewhere if the government does not reduce it. First, the issue is probably not important enough for them to base their vote exclusively on this one point, and second, where would they take their vote? On the other hand, however, people who see their tuition levels jump would cast their vote solely on this one issue. Since they probably don’t vote NDP anyway, the only real risk to the NDP is agitating the private school demographic to more forcefully promote their right wing party through donations, volunteering etc.

    Personally I think reducing it to at least 50% would be reasonable.

    Reply
    • Farmer B

      March 10th, 2017

      Bob some excellent points. In Alberta we have both center and right of center parties promoting at the very least a wage freeze for public employees and some a cut and on the left we have for example some advocating for the elimination of public funding to private schools. There have been many well documented studies showing that Alberta public sector employees are the best payed in Canada. So when the next election comes around which policy do you think will receive more support at the polls? The problem is even if we raise our tax levels up to the rest of Canada our budget still won’t be balanced. It will take both tax increases and spending cuts to achieve balance.

      Reply
      • Expat Albertan

        March 10th, 2017

        Or higher oil prices. But in the absence of that, you’re right. The question is always what gets cut – BUT this is first and last a political question, NOT an economic question as we have been led to believe. Cuts almost always fall on the politically weakest. But the corollary is always that the politically well-healed always get to protect their tax-payer funded largesse… and that is something that is too often ignored.

        Reply
  6. David

    March 9th, 2017

    I don’t know if this issue will erupt any time soon, but if not it might become an issue in the next election. I seem to recall support of private religious schools coming up in a previous Ontario election and it was not a winning issue for the Ontario PC’s. It is possible that could happen here too, although there may or may not still be Alberta PC’s around by then.

    However, this is not a simple issue as there are different types of private schools – there are religious/faith based schools which may have students with different income levels and social backgrounds, then the academy types which promote academic achievement and some exclusivity targeted at the more wealthy and then various combinations of both.

    I am not strongly in favour of or against private schools, but I do think that in general all schools should get a fairly uniform level of per student funding. Therefore the schools that charge higher student fees should have their government funding reduced accordingly. Of course those private schools who choose to totally forego government funding could charge their students whatever they want, but they would still have to meet provincial instructional/curriculum guidelines.

    Reply
    • Val

      March 10th, 2017

      cannot agree with it. the trend in which private sector relies on funding by taxpayers becomes worrisome. and this trend is growing, not only in education.
      if ones started profit earning venture, they should be in no way funded by taxpayers at all. prove that you’re worth something or go out of business, as in capitalism it’s supposed to be. what we observe nowadays it’s a move to kind of perverted form of communism.

      Reply
  7. March 9th, 2017

    It’s not surprising that a public school trustee would claim discrimination in favour of Roman Catholic separate schools, but my personal knowledge shows her mistaken in the case of Calgary. My grandsons attend St Alphonsus school in Renfrew where they live. At grade 10 they will have to take a bus across town to St Mary’s Senior High School, a trip of at least an hour, at their parents expense. If they lived in newer neighbourhoods in the far reaches of Calgary they would not be able to attend Roman Catholic schools as, I believe, guaranteed in Alberta’s constitution.

    Reply
  8. Brett

    March 10th, 2017

    Access to Catholic schools is not a choice. It is a guarantee as part of the 1867 BNA Act that created Canada. That Act spelled out the division of responsibilities between Federal and Provincial Governments. It also guaranteed certain rights to those of the Catholic faith. It is always surprising to me that so many people seem to know so little about the BNA Act that created Canada. We had it three years running in grades 5,6, and 7 (public school). Perhaps it is not taught any more.

    Public funding of all other non public schools, faith based and otherwise, is a choice. Alas it is a choice that, in Alberta, has much more to do with politics than it does to common sense and good public policy.

    I have nothing against private schools nor am I of the Catholic faith. I just do not understand why we think it is
    affordable. It is not.

    Reply
  9. Sassy

    March 11th, 2017

    When reducing or eliminating Alberta’s generous public subsidies, which I believe must begin in this budget, I wonder if there should be a differentiation between private non-profits and private hybrids (with charitable foundations), and the purely for-profit private schools. The defenders of the status quo will always point to the “poor” non-profits that don’t cater only to the rich, but accept struggling, middle-class families. I would suggest eliminating funding for the latter two and phasing out funding for the first group. I’d also like to see audited financial statements on the Alberta Education website for all boards receiving public funding, not just Public, Separate, Francophone, and Charter.

    Home-schoolers are a different bunch. They receive approximately $1,600 per student in tax-payer funding, with the stipulation the over-seeing authority must spend a minimum of 50 percent of that directly on the student’s education. I think Alberta Education should raise that 50 percent minimum to 75 percent. The public boards could easily assist their home-schooling families within the new parameter; private entities such as Trinity/Wisdom would not.

    I hope the NDP government doesn’t take the easy way out and ignore these issues.

    Reply

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