Party leadership hopeful makes erroneous claims about school choice in Alberta

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Appeared in True North, March 18, 2024
Party leadership hopeful makes erroneous claims about school choice in Alberta

The leadership race in Alberta’s New Democratic Party has already produced some intriguing policy debates, and unfortunately, at least one significant falsehood.

NDP leadership hopeful and MLA, Sarah Hoffman, tweeted Tuesday that: “The [United Conservative Party] is deliberately starving our public, separate and Francophone schools of resources in order to divert tax dollars to private schools and charter schools.”

Not true.

It’s an oft-repeated myth that school choice policies are “starving” government schools of resources. In reality, these policies save the government significant sums of money, which leaves money available for other government programs including government schools.

To be clear, the Alberta government partially funds independent schools, which essentially means that a portion of parents’ tax dollars can follow their children to the independent school of their choice. As a result, many families who couldn’t afford to pay full tuition at independent schools—which offer a wide range of education and cultural choices—can now afford it. And crucially, contrary to Hoffman’s tweet, when a student enrolls in an independent school, the government does not need to pay for the full cost of that student’s education. Again, the government saves money.

It's a similar story for charter schools, which according to past research cost the Alberta government thousands of dollars less, per student, than government schools.

All told, how much money does the government save? According to a 2019 research paper, school choice policies, including government funding of both charter schools and independent schools, saved the Alberta government $1.9 billion over eight years.

Hoffman also tweeted that: “Charter schools have long desired to be regarded as part of the public system. Alberta should formalize this by providing a path to truly enter the public system.”

First, charter schools are already public schools. But unlike government schools, charter schools operate autonomously, have independent boards and are typically started by parents and educators responding to community need. Hoffman’s tweet suggests that charter schools want to lose that autonomy and be owned and operated by government—a curious suggestion based on no evidence.

Finally, Hoffman tweeted that: “The Edmonton Public School Board, which I was chair of, has had great success in offering programs of choice within the public system.”

While choice programs within the government system are better than no choice at all, they aren’t substitutes for accessible charter and independent schools.

If McDonald’s operated every restaurant but offered a range of styles and choices, those choices would still not be as unique, innovative or authentic as choices offered by a wide variety of restaurant owners who hone their craft and offer unique experiences to patrons. Likewise, if the government owns and operates a short list of school options, it won’t foster innovation nor provide the level of diversity many middle- and lower-income families require.

Hoffman mentioned Edmonton Public Schools, which indeed offers more choice (arts programs, athletics, religious schools, etc.) than most other public school boards. But it can’t compete, in terms of options, with Alberta charter schools, which cater to at-risk youth, rural life, gifted education, agricultural stewardship, music, traditional Indigenous teaching, classical education, STEM, English as an additional language and more. And research has shown that charter schools benefit disadvantaged students more than government schools while also outperforming government schools on student achievement tests.

Finally, school choice is not unique to Alberta. Independent school funding exists in every province outside Ontario and Atlantic Canada, and independent school funding and/or charter schools are commonplace in the United States and much of Europe.

Party leadership races are the right place for bold policy ideas, but they should also be a place for facts and truth. In reality, school choice policies, which empower parents to send their kids to independent and charter schools, save taxpayer money, deliver stronger student achievement, better serve disadvantaged student populations and foster genuine diversity within Alberta’s education system.

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