Budget critics target private school funding

Calgary Herald, Canada/March 12, 2013

With more than half of all school boards in Alberta getting less money from the province next year, some critics are questioning why the Alberta government didn't instead make deeper funding cuts to private schools.

The province will support private schools to the tune of $206 million in the coming year, an overall five per cent increase from this year. Funding for school boards will rise just 0.8 per cent to $6.1 billion.

The education department says the overall funding bump to private schools is being driven by rising enrolments, particularly among early childhood services private operators.

Private schools were also hit by education cuts, as per student base grants were frozen in the budget, while maintenance funding and a special project grant were eliminated.

But critics say it's a political choice in the first place to fund private schools in Alberta, and doesn't make sense amid lean times for education.

"I don't know why we're funding them in good times," said Calgary-Buffalo Liberal MLA Kent Hehr.

"But in times (when it's) difficult to meet the core mandate of what we're supposed to be funding, I find it troubling that we're continuing to fund them at the rate we do."

There are 115 private schools in Alberta that are eligible for funding, some of which are faith based, at rates of either 60 per cent or 70 per cent of the base grant of public schools.

Proponents argue private schools give parents choice, and take financial pressure off the province because students don't have to be fully funded through the public system.

And in this latest provincial budget, private schools say they have been particularly hard hit, worse than public boards.

"Our grants have been disproportionately reduced," said Duane Plantinga, executive director of Association of Independent Schools and Colleges in Alberta.

"At the end of the day, the students that go to these schools, and have for many years, receive an education. That's what the grant is for that they get and the rest is not covered."

Opponents, however, have zeroed in on particular institutions that receive taxpayer support. One of those is the Progressive Academy in Edmonton, which uses an education technique based on work by L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology.

Scientology has come under renewed scrutiny recently after two highly critical books were published about the church.

The church in the United States has also faced a series of lawsuits over allegations of misused donations, something it vehemently denies.

An Alberta Teachers' Association official has noted the fact that Progressive Academy gets public funding, while on Sunday a school board trustee for the Prairie Land school board, which is in the Hanna area, took to Twitter.

"Progressive Academy private school is associated with scientology," Elaine Horner wrote in a message directed to Education Minister Jeff Johnson. "Please stop funding it immediately."

In the 2011-2012 school year, Progressive Academy received $664,545 from the province for roughly 120 students. It collected another $725,080 in tuition.

The executive director of the school, however, said it does not teach Scientology, nor is it a faith-based school. C-Anne Robertson said the school uses Applied Scholastics, a teaching technique based on the work of Hubbard.

"We don't have a relationship to Scientology. We're not a Scientology school, we're not a religious school, either," she said.

"If you were to visit our school you would see we have this incredible diverse ethnic, cultural and socio-economic background of students and families in our schools.

"We do use Mr. Hubbard's study skills approach, and it's just an education tool to help children learn and study."

She declined to say what proportion of students and staff are followers of Scientology, but Robertson said she a member of the church.

To qualify for funding, a private school must teach Alberta's programs of study, employ certificated teachers, and students have to take provincial tests.

Those eligible for funding also submit budget and financial statements to the education minister, and develop three-year education plans.

The government argues that funding private schools is a matter of offering parents in Alberta a choice of how they want their children to be educated.

Kim Capstick, the education minister's press-secretary, said most of the private institutions aren't "posh boarding schools."

"We have a lot of different private schools with a lot of different belief systems represented," Capstick said.

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