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April 24, 2018 Marion Leithead, former educator


Re: article: “A drain on the public purse...” by James Wilt of Progress Alberta, ATA News, March 13

As editor of the ATA News, it is vital that you ensure the information conveyed therein is correct, non-partisan, and informative. I indicate below how the Wilt/Progress Alberta article fails on all three points and contains dubious, misleading numbers regarding the funding of Alberta’s roughly 250 private schools.

While attempting to demonstrate how private schools “drain the public purse,” Wilt detours into at least a dozen religious references and ends with his erroneous conclusion that “defunding private schools ... should be our first priority.” It may be an issue, but it’s certainly NOT our first priority! Nor is comparing Alberta’s private school funding to that of other provinces a strong or justifiable argument.

If he’s making interprovincial fiscal comparisons, Wilt needs to also note that Albertans’ average annual incomes well exceed those of residents in other provinces, and that Alberta spends $2,700 more per person than B.C. yet collects $1,300 less in tax — as reported by CBC News reporter Robson Fletcher on Feb. 24, 2017. This discrepancy causes a much bigger drain on the public purse than do private schools.

And, likewise, if he’s making education-related comparisons, why does Wilt ignore the vast discrepancies between superintendent salaries in Alberta and other provinces’? Why does he not mention the $2.7 billion that Alberta spent to reduce class sizes (something close to the ATA’s heart) — money that simply disappeared and failed to have the intended results? Wilt cannot, with any credibility, cherry-pick private schools as his major “drain on the public purse” while ignoring these other realities.

Wilt’s defunding premise is blatantly political and partisan. This is exemplified by his lengthy diversion into religious aspects plus his juxtaposition of the anti-funding stance put forward by Progress Alberta and the ATA (among others) against the United Conservative Party’s defense of equal funding. Yet another example of his politicization is his claim: “clearly the funding of private schools is shaping up to be a hot topic as we head towards the next provincial election.”

Before going to print, why didn’t Wilt (and you, as editor) do the math on the per-student cost difference between public and private schooling? Your readers need to know that Wilt’s claimed $100 million drain on the public purse is dubious and unsubstantiated. Another analysis by the CBC’s Robson Fletcher, published Feb. 28, 2018, states that Alberta spends $10,936 per year per public student versus $7,567 per year per private student. It would, therefore, cost Alberta Education an additional $10 million, roughly, to educate Alberta’s 35,000 private school students.

That amount probably covers the additional teacher salary costs, but what about the “buy-out” of private school facilities, assets and/or mortgages, and maintenance of the existing schools? The latest provincial budget earmarked $393 million for 20 new schools, which amounts to nearly $20 million per school. Using those figures as a guide, if the government had to replace each of the province’s 250 private schools, it would cost nearly $5 billion. Given these government figures, I question how Wilt arrived at $4.2 million as his estimate of what it costs the province to build a new school (ATA News, Apr. 10, 2018).

This is the same article in which Wilt claimed that Webber Academy is sitting on a $40 million surplus. Is he targeting Webber because it is number three in Alberta’s top-10 schools, as ranked by the website, Alberta’s final Grade 12 diploma class averages and the Fraser Institute’s School Report Cards? Seven of Alberta’s top-10 schools are private, despite Alberta outspending all provinces on public schools, except Ontario, Quebec and B.C. (as shown by a 2017 Statistics Canada report).

Wilt, Progress Alberta, the ATA, Education Minister David Eggen and Alberta Education would be wise to support and learn from Alberta’s private schools, as they are often academic beacons in Alberta’s educational wasteland. ❚ 

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