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Private schools seek full instructional funding

Shelley Svidal

The Association of Independent Schools and Colleges in Alberta (AISCA) got a lukewarm reception when it asked the government for more money February 20.

In his presentation to the Standing Policy Committee on Learning and Employment, AISCA executive director Duane Plantinga asked MLAs to increase private schools' portion of the basic instructional grant by eight per ent the first year and four percent every year thereafter until they receive 100 percent of the instructional block.

Private schools currently receive 60 percent of the basic instructional grant and full funding for students with severe disabilities. They are not eligible for capital or support funding.

Plantinga highlighted disparities between public- and private-school salaries as a major reason for the request. He pointed out private-school teachers earn 20 to 30 percent less than their public-school counterparts. That gap has been widened by recent public-sector salary settlements, he said.

"Moving toward parity in salaries will go a long way in ensuring that the private school sector is able to attract and keep quality teachers who are essential to maintaining the viability of choices offered in independent schools. Increasing the general level of instructional funds is likely the fairest and least cumbersome way to address the imbalance," the submission states.

Plantinga recommended private schools be eligible for full technology integration funding, which currently sits at $43 per student per year. He also recommended they receive five years' worth of retroactive technology integration funding at the rate of $25 per student per year.

"[Private] schools have faced considerable hardship as they have been required to invest heavily when attempting to meet the required technology infrastructure needs," the submission states. "The repeated investments needed continually drain vital funding from other areas of instructional need."

Plantinga estimated private schools save the government $100 million a year. He lamented the migration of 2,500 students to the public education system over the past few years as private schools opt for alternative-school status.

"Independent school choice is now disadvantaged in a new competitive way. They have limited financial capacity to respond with more resources. Clearly, this makes it more difficult for them to compete and survive on the learning landscape," the submission states.

"When Air Canada set up Tango there is little doubt that they were intent on competing fiercely with West Jet. Alternative schooling options are beginning to function in a similar way."

Human Resources and Employment Minister Clint Dunford suggested private schools would have to start electing their boards from the public at large if they were to receive additional government funding.

AISCA director Neil Webber rejected the suggestion. "If future funding is going to depend on more control, then I opt out," he told the committee.

Learning Minister Lyle Oberg noted Alberta was the only jurisdiction in the world in which public-school students outperformed their private-school counterparts on the recent Program for International Student Assessment. He recalled the AISCA had told the Private Schools Funding Task Force that, if the government were to give private schools 60 percent of the basic instructional grant, the organization would be "out of [its] face" forever. Plantinga responded by noting circumstances had changed significantly over the past five years, especially in terms of technology.

In March 1998, the government agreed to increase private-school funding from 50 to 60 percent of the basic instructional grant. The increase was phased in over two years, beginning in September 1999.

"The [Private Schools Funding Task Force] report's admission that 60 percent is a purely arbitrary figure allows for further negotiations in the future," the AISCA stated in its April 1998 newsletter.