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A drain on the public purse — the history of private schooling in Alberta

March 13, 2018 James Wilt, Progress Alberta, Special to the ATA News

Part of a Progress Alberta campaign calling on the government to defund elite private schools, this commentary is adapted from an article that appears on Progress Alberta’s website at

Alberta private schools currently receive public funding that amounts to 70 per cent of the government funding received by public schools. This is the highest rate in the country, compared to 60 per cent in Quebec, 50 per cent in B.C. and Manitoba and zero per cent in Ontario.

On March 5, a group of 17 public school proponents (including the Alberta Teachers’ Association and Progress Alberta) banded together in calling on the province to scale back funding to private schools.

Meanwhile, a few weeks earlier, a draft policy framework released by the United Conservative Party contained a line pledging equal funding for all schools — “public, separate, charter, home or private.”

Alberta private schools currently receive public funding that amounts to 70 per cent of the government funding received by public schools. This is the highest rate in the country, compared to 60 per cent in Quebec, 50 per cent in B.C. and Manitoba and zero per cent in Ontario.

Clearly the funding of private schools is shaping up to be a hot topic as we head toward the next provincial election, but how on Earth did the province get to this point?

Historical context

Almost all schooling in Canada was private until the early 19th century — created by Catholic and Protestant churches as a means to spread their religion, morality and cultural influence. The British North America Act of 1867 officially allocated the responsibility of education to the provinces. This responsibility was further entrenched with the Alberta Act of 1905. These acts created public English Protestant schools and separate French Catholic schools. Given their existence prior to Alberta becoming a province, Catholic schools became — and remain to this day — an integral part of our public education system.

Religious values continued to shape the public system up to the middle of the 20th century. As secularization in society grew, some groups — especially Dutch Calvinists — started establishing their own private schools.

“There’s a kind of religious competition involved, to some degree,” said David Rayside, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Toronto and co-author of 2017’s Religion and Canadian Party Politics, in an interview with Progress Alberta.

“But there’s also vying for influence between what we might call ‘clericals’ and ‘anti-clericals.’ And that goes back to the 19th century. It hasn’t been as nasty a conflict as it has been in parts of Europe, but it’s still part of the Canadian historical fabric.”

In 1946, the Ernest Manning-led Social Credit Party officially recognized private schools by a change to the province’s Education Act. Manning followed that up in 1967 by starting to actually fund private schools, at $100 per student. The seven-term premier retired only a year later, leading to the crushing of his party by the Peter Lougheed-led Progressive Conservatives in 1971.

But the seeds had been sown for the continued growth of private schools in Alberta.

By 1974, the PCs had increased per-student funding to 33 per cent of what public schools were receiving, and that was boosted to 40 per cent only two years later. David King, a long-time MLA and provincial education minister between 1979 and 1986, said in an interview with Progress Alberta that people were making the case that separate Catholic schools were receiving full funding and it was “only right” that private schools also received some money.

He remembered particular pressure from the Association of Independent Schools and Colleges, an Edmonton-based organization led by Gary Duthler — a member of the Christian Reformed tradition and an “active, ongoing and determined advocate” for more funding, according to King.

Between 1980 and 1987, the province boosted funding for private schools at a rate that was 50 per cent faster than for public schools. By the mid-1980s, some 13,000 students were enrolled in private schools. Rayside of the University of Toronto said that a “coincidence of interests” was formed between religious conservatives and free enterprisers, creating a concerted force.

Ralph Klein took things to a whole new level following his election as premier in 1992.

Massive changes to the education system were made almost immediately in the name of “parent choice” — slashing wages for teachers, cutting kindergarten funding, repealing schooling regulations, amalgamating school boards, removing attendance boundaries and eliminating taxation powers for schools. Charter schools were legislated in 1994. A pro-privatization group, Albertans for Quality Education, received significant attention from the government despite being made up of only 325 members.

In April 1997, PC MLA Carol Haley introduced a private member’s bill that proposed to increase annual funding of private schools by $14 million. This move split the PC caucus, with education minister Gary Mar against the bill and provincial treasurer Stockwell Day for it. In response, Klein created a five-person Private School Funding Task Force — members included Duthler and then lawyer Jim Prentice.

At a PC convention in fall 1997, party delegates actually voted to eliminate public funding for private schools.

Instead, the government chose to implement the task force’s recommendation and increase per-student private funding from 50 per cent of what public schools received, up to 60 per cent in 1998: equivalent to a $6.7 million annual increase. That meant that private schools received a 30 per cent hike in government funding between 1997 and 2000, while public schools received only a 6.8 per cent increase.

In addition, the government chose not to introduce any limits on the amount of tuition a private school could charge.

Yet the Progressive Conservatives still were not content.

In 2008, Premier Ed Stelmach increased the per-student percentage again, up to the 70 per cent that we still have with us today — now equivalent to about $5,200 per student. Defunding private schools would free up about $100 million to redirect to public schools. This should be our first priority. ❚

Progress Alberta is an independent non-profit dedicated to building a more progressive Alberta.

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