Greed, ambition and the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta

It’s so predictable that it is almost funny. 

On March 5, the Public School Board Association of Alberta released a new report, entitled Choice in Alberta Education: Challenges and Opportunities for Public Schools.

In it, they argue that having non-public schools actually reduces choice, because public school systems could offer more — if only it weren’t for funding to those pesky private, Charter and Catholic schools. It’s naked self-interest — and could be subtitled “government business advocates for an end to its competitors.”

The paper proceeds by “case studies,” interviewing some Public School Board Superintendents.  Here’s a sample statement from one:

“The other thing we run into when we talk about school choice, is that choice for parents does not always equate to more choice for students. In fact, what it does is limit the choice students have in school. It becomes more difficult to offer in two systems, what could be offered in one.” – Neil O’Shea, Superintendent for Aspen Schools.

Aspen is north of Edmonton and it’s worth noting that their three-year high school completion rate is 74.7% — the third straight year of decline on this measure, and considerably below the Alberta average of 80.7%.

Participation rates and scores on the Alberta Diploma exams are similarly dismal — especially compared to the school-awarded grades. O’Shea’s response to this dismal record is not to improve his school system, but to try to shut down the Catholic  school system. People are leaving Aspen schools because O’Shea’s management is bad. He’s a walking argument for school choice.

O’Shea’s argument is also disturbing in nature. 

He appears to be trying to separate the good of students from the good of their parents. Is he implying that he, as an agent of the state, is the guardian of the good of students against the parents? Is he really implying that freedom is slavery?

His argument deconstructs: he is claiming that he should be allowed to take power from parents when he — as a professional — already has most of the power in the relationship.  From the standpoint of professional ethics, he is on the shakiest ground imaginable.

Finally, O’Shea’s argument — and that of this report in general — is highly intolerant of minorities, particularly (as noted) Catholics. 

On this, it is in direct violation of Canada’s international obligations.

Article Five of the UN Convention on Discrimination in Education is very clear that we must maintain the right of parents to choose educational institutions other than those maintained by the public authorities. This is an absolute mandate to respect independent schools, including those of religious minorities, as well as parents who simply want to be more involved in their children’s educations.

Choice is important.

Special programs and independent schools are noted for  better results than public schools. It isn’t because they have money (independent schools get far less than public schools, and the average family income for the 82% of private schools that are “non-elite” is less than the provincial average and it isn’t by picking elite students. 

It’s because those independent and special programs — especially the religious ones — are better at giving students a “good fit” than the monoculture of the public systems.  

Now, this isn’t a knock on public education. It’s a wonderful thing: it can create great special programs (the author is a graduate of one) and it seems prudent to have a publicly-funded standard system for education. But without competitors, there is no pressure to innovate, no reason for a drive towards excellence.

And for those who are concerned with actually respecting diversity — as opposed to using the buzzword to bully others into giving them money and power — choice is essential. It allows us to give a dignified place for minorities, fulfilling our international obligations

In the words of the UN Convention on Discrimination in Education, “It is essential to respect the liberty of parents . . . to choose for their children institutions other than those maintained by the public authorities.” 

And in a time of massive loss of confidence in the public schools, it provides an outlet for those discontented with or suspicious of the public-school authorities. 

To this, the PSBAA might respond that it is fine to allow non-public schools, but why would we want to let the government fund them? 

There are two simple reasons we should continue to fund educational pluralism.

The first is about simple fairness. 

People have an absolute right to attend schools outside of the public system, per Article 5 of the UN Convention Against Discrimination in Education. And, by Article 3, we committed to not restrict funding for students based on their belonging to a particular group. 

We cannot claim to respect these claims while we hamper those alternate forms of education by taxing the participants and giving the money elsewhere — that would be bad faith. These people have a right to the same share of tax dollars as anyone else. 

The second is an economic one. 

Five years ago, Parents for Choice in Education commissioned a study of funding, to see if public education was harmed by alternative education.  The results were startling: Alberta’s educational system saved a startling $250 million per year through private schools, charters and home education, which receive dramatically less per-student funding than the public schools. By today’s numbers, the amount will be closer to $400 million. If we remove all of our non-public education programs, this money will be sucked out of the public system — resulting in very real difficulties.

In fact, we’ve seen the arguments contained in this report before. Thirty years ago, economist Bruce Wilkinson published a book called Educational Choice: Necessary But Not Sufficient

In that book, he destroyed the argument that public education was cheaper because of “economies of scale” — the same argument advanced in the current PSBAA report.  Nothing was left.  He then let public school advocates Jim Head and Michael Krashinsky print articles to refute his thesis. 

But to Wilkinson’s surprise, they did not even attempt to rebut his arguments. 

Rather, they simply repeated the same argument about economies of scale, without any more evidence than the current PSBAA report. There have been other PSBAA reports over the years and other PSBAA attempts to end school choice. They used the same tired arguments and lost the debate those times as well. Their economic arguments carry no more truth now than they did thirty years ago. They are simply more tired — and they were already exhausted.

So why is the PSBAA recycling this argument yet again? 

It helps to think of the PSBAA as a business. And what they are saying is that “the government should shut down every business that competes with us, so that we can have their money.” 

The normal human desire for power and money are sufficient to explain this report — and no more energy is needed to rebut it. Its proper file cabinet is the one under your desk. 

John Hilton-O’Brien is the Executive Director of Parents for Choice in Education,

This article originally appeared in the Western Standard on March 14th, 2024. A printable pdf is available.