Parents are naturally concerned about how well their children do at school and about the quality of education. Schooling is a highly-formative experience and convincing parents of the value of a specific school may prove to be challenging among the wide range of options. This article explores independent (private) schools as one such option in Alberta’s diverse education landscape.
Independent School Enrolments
In a 2016-17 provincial system of 704,890 students, 29,418 (approximately four per cent) attended independent (private) schools. Another 6,189 attended community-based private ECS sites (kindergartens) where about 70 per cent of the students have special needs. Some international, First Nations and non-resident students are also educated in independent schools. As an aggregated group, the population of students is approximately five per cent of the education system as a whole. Most of the independent schools enrol less than 200 students per site with a handful teaching over 700 students. The Calgary area is home to approximately 40 independent school authorities.
The most distinctive feature of independent schools, similar to charter schools, is that they are generally single-site operations under the supervision of a small board. Each independent school operates with a specific vision and mission that may vary according to the type of education programming. Boards may be elected or appointed and teachers are hired directly.
Since different governance models are practiced and most management is site-based, independent schools do not have large centralized offices so they tend to not get bogged down in bureaucracy. Decisions can be made more expeditiously and effectively. The schools acquire additional services as required by contracting and collaborating with other local agencies. There may be various support committees to assist in managing all the services and facilities. If a school is not responsive, and parents and students are not satisfied, it will likely fail as parents leave.
Teachers in independent schools hold the same professional certificates as their public school counterparts. Teaching standards are subject to provincial regulation managed by Alberta Education’s Teacher Certification Branch. Teachers are evaluated externally by competent individuals appointed by the registrar in order to qualify for permanent professional teaching certificates and their teaching practice is governed by provincial legislation.
Accountability of Independent Schools
All community-based private ECS (kindergarten) operators and all independent schools operate as not-for-profit agencies under the Societies Act of Alberta. They must report accordingly to Alberta Education using the same accountability pillars as do public schools but with additional requirements for monitoring, external reporting and teacher evaluation. Standards of accountability generally parallel public schools, which are available on the Alberta Education website.
Government-collected data reveals that independent schools are safe and caring institutions that are responsive to parents, and do a good job of preparing students for life after high school.
Independent School Economics Considerations
In keeping with the 1998 Private School Funding Task Force, Alberta independent schools receive part of the funding public authorities receive per student. Currently, private school funding is limited to a maximum of 70 per cent of the instructional and plant operations and maintenance (POM) funding envelopes provided to public authorities. Independent schools do not receive funding for a number of funding envelopes available to public authorities, including: class-size reduction dollars, technology enhancement funding, transportation grants and capital (school building) funds. In addition, independent school teachers do not benefit from the $2.2 billion government provided to the Teachers’ Retirement Fund to cover pension plan shortfalls.
Milke (2015) recently pointed out that independent schools have saved government some $750 million over the past five years. Milke uses a comparison that a student in the public system costs taxpayers $10,874 in comparison to $5,150 for a student in the private system. It could be argued that tuitions paid by independent school parents make more dollars available to public schools.
Special needs students may qualify for additional grants. Some specialized schools, termed designated special education private schools, may only admit students requiring specialized supports but their non-special education funding is like that of the other independent schools. No independent school receives funding for capital expenses so a modern facility with specialized theatres or playing fields is not built using taxpayer money.
Independent schools charge tuitions in order to pay for the remaining costs of operating the school. Tuition fees will vary considerably depending on the kind of capital investments for buildings, teacher/student ratios, extracurricular program activities and other program enhancements.
For more than 100 years, Alberta has been well served with a pluralistic system of education. In keeping with the province’s heritage and values, conscientious objectors, minority groups and people from multiple backgrounds have settled in the area without having to extinguish their foundational identities.
One criticism of independent schools is that they do not allow everyone to attend. Public schools select students based on geographic location, specific program types and needs of the student, and sometimes gender. Not every student can enrol in any school. A universal education system that is genuinely inclusive must allow some parental choice so that parents can make positive choices for the sake of their child. In that sense, Alberta’s aggregated, pluralistic educational system is in fact very inclusive, and independent schools play a key role in complementing the provincial system.
Arguments opposing independent schools are nothing new. Opponents often fail to consider the significant contributions independent schools make to society and ignore the fact that the primary beneficiaries are children. At the end of the day, all students in both public and independent schools are provided a government-approved education through a curriculum that meets Alberta’s expectations. Independent schools are not a “private” matter; they provide a public function by delivering on educational outcomes through not-for-profit institutions that are approved by and held accountable to the public interest.
From the perspective of parents, primary concerns usually revolve around how well their child is doing. They want to know their child is in good hands, and that the school has their best interest at heart. They need assurance that the situation at school is working. In a child’s 13 years of education, each day counts.
For more information, visit the Association of Independent Schools & Colleges (AISCA) at www.aisca.ab.ca. AISCA represents approximately 90 per cent of Alberta’s publicly-accredited independent schools as well as 65 per cent of the private early childhood services programs.