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Catharine Kavanagh: Independent schools are a win-win. Alberta needs to step up and get on board

Commentary

One. 

That’s the net number of new independent schools opening in Alberta in the last decade, according to a new report from Cardus.

With overcrowding as bad as it is in many neighbourhood schools, Alberta’s government should be concerned. And it needs to look to independent schools to help out.

Neighbourhood schools run by public boards won’t be the solution. It’s fine for the 2024 provincial budget to fund 43 new neighbourhood schools, but most won’t be open for many years. In Calgary’s booming suburbs, a brand-new school in barely its second year of operation is already full and will need to bring in portables next year. North Trail High School, also new in Calgary and serving over 1000 students, was ten years in the making. With Alberta’s population booming with 202,324 new residents in 2023, the 10-15 year feedback loop for new school builds is simply not sustainable. Despite the government’s best intentions, and most efficient prioritizing and most generous budgeting, there is no way government procurement and construction processes can keep up with this rate of growth. 

Right now, Alberta is falling behind in independent school creation. Cardus’s recently released “Exploring Alberta’s Independent School Landscape” report, found that in the decade that saw one net new independent school open in this province, 491 net new independent schools opened in Ontario. 

Even accounting for about half of them being credit-emphasis schools geared towards serving international students, that still means that Ontario has essentially seen 250 new schools compared to Alberta’s lone start-up. Meanwhile, Alberta has a long-standing culture of educational choice, and independent school students receive 70 percent of the government operational grants that public school students get. In Ontario? Independent school students get zero help, and the culture of schooling options just doesn’t exist. 

Why the disparity? Firstly, it is difficult to launch new independent schools in Alberta. If I were to start an independent school in Ontario, all I need to do is recruit five students. Then I would submit a Notice of Intention anytime before September 1, along with a $300 fee, to the Ministry of Education informing them that I’d launched a school. And with that, process over. My school has begun. The Ministry will conduct a “validation visit” within the first few weeks of operation to ensure that basic elements of schooling are present, but that’s it. (Schools wishing to grant high school credits can request greater oversight and inspection to be granted the required accreditation).

Comparatively, my Alberta school is a significantly slower start-up. I’d have to file an application by March 15, which must include detailed information about the proposed programs of study, plans for student assessment, and proof of compliance with municipal zoning laws and provincial health, safety, and fire requirements. I’d also have to submit an annual operating plan. There is no guaranteed timeline for the Ministry to accept or reject my application. And all of this applies whether I’m receiving government accreditation and/or funding or not! For accredited and/or accredited-funded schools, there are additional requirements to be met.

Of course, independent schools remain responsible for 100 percent of their building or other capital costs—a very expensive budget item. And the icing on the cake for many would-be applicants of accredited funded schools is that they are not even guaranteed the 70 percent grant funding in their first year of operation—when it is obviously most needed.  

Yet parents eagerly embrace independent schools. Alberta’s independent school student population has grown by 45 percent since 2013-14. That’s triple the rate of growth in neighbourhood schools. While there may not be new independent schools opening, existing schools are rapidly expanding, and many also have substantial waitlists. 

It’s time to unlock the potential of independent school growth. 

Encouraging independent school growth is simply good use of taxpayers’ money. Students who attend independent schools represent an immediate 30 percent savings in operational costs, in addition to the savings of no capital obligations. For a province looking to maximize value for public spending while still increasing educational investment, encouraging greater educational choice equals immediately lower costs, while also drawing in great investment from donors, parents, and businesses. 

Independent schools are also good for society. The data are clear that compared to graduates from public schools, independent school grads not only do better academically, but also grow up to have stronger families, be more civically involved, experience more professional success, serve more in their communities, and donate more of their time and money. The individual and societal “bang for your buck” from independent schools is overwhelming.  

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce attends a meeting of “Recess Rangers” at Ogden Junior Public School before making an announcement, in Toronto, Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2019. Chris Young/The Canadian Press.

Alberta quite simply needs the community as partners. Despite the promises of Budget 2024, neighbourhood schools just can’t keep up. 

So, let’s empower and encourage the entrepreneurial spirit of Albertan parents, families, and communities to fill the gap. The demand for educational diversity is staggering. The current 2023-24 school year saw year-over-year independent school enrollment jump by 10.5 percent, whereas public school enrollment only increased by 3.2 percent and separate schools by 4.3 percent. Charter school enrollment was up by 13.7 percent and home education grew by a dramatic 16.2 percent. 

Alberta parents want accessible, affordable independent education options that meet their children’s unique learning needs. Frankly, the government needs independent education too. More independent schools would help the student capacity crunch; ease budget pressures; respect parents as first educators of their children; diversify Alberta’s program offerings; and increase the quality of education for every student in every school province-wide. 

All the government has to do is get out of the way. Decrease barriers to new start-ups. Simplify the application process (without compromising on quality control). Provide certainty in funding for new schools. Then the independent school sector would thrive. And that means Albertan children would be thriving too. 

It’s a win-win-win situation—so what is the government waiting for?

Patrick Luciani: Utopian ideas always sound nice. But never underestimate the ugliness of human nature

Commentary

In the latest Hub book review, Patrick Luciani examines Free and Equal: A Manifesto for a Just Society (Knopf, 2023, 2024) by Daniel Chandler, which puts forth how the ideas of John Rawls can be implemented in our times for progressive political ends.

After the Second World War, countries in Northern Europe, the U.K., Canada, and the U.S. moved closer to what we know as democratic welfare states. Not all at the same pace, but there was a general belief that governments had an obligation to help the poor with programs that supported education and health, along with pensions when they retired. That momentum grew stronger over the years. 

With the spread of more programs, resistance came from those forced to pay for these programs with higher taxes, and they had a point. Classical political thinkers John Locke and American James Madison provided some justification for a small but limited government to protect property rights. Even Karl Marx provided a philosophical top-down justification for communism and the control of all capital and resources. But there wasn’t a philosophy justifying or underpinning a welfare state. 

In a transformative moment in 1971, Harvard philosopher John Rawls published A Theory of Justice, a work that would revolutionize political philosophy. Rawls’ argument was a profound endeavour to reconcile the seemingly conflicting ideals of freedom and equality in a pluralistic society, a departure from the conventional political theories. Rawls’ book would cement his status as the most significant political theorist of the past century. Five decades after its publication, it still dominates contemporary political thought and debate. 

Daniel Chandler’s book Free and Equal explains how Rawls’s thinking can still create “a more humane, equal, and sustainable society for our times” and a realistic utopia if only we had the courage to follow his lead. 

Rawls defended a greater role for the state through a thought experiment following the tradition of Thomas Hobbes and Jean Jacque Rousseau’s social contract theories. He proposed we start from an original position where “we” as a society gather to design a system of government behind what he called a “veil of ignorance.” Behind this veil, we have no memory of our race, religion, family history, status in society, or whether we are rich or poor. We don’t even know our genders, ambitions, or intellectual capacities. Our amnesia is complete behind this veil. 

Under these conditions, what kind of society would we choose to live in? Rawls concludes we would rationally select a system that guarantees the highest level of political rights to pursue our goals in a free society and, second, what Rawls called the “difference principle” that inequalities in society are allowed if they benefit everyone. This system assures a level of income distribution that would secure a good life for all, especially for the least advantaged. We would choose that system because it serves our self-interest. 

Rawls further justifies sharing wealth and income because much of life is a matter of chance; no one truly deserves their intellectual or creative talents because they are distributed by nature randomly. Even the talent for hard work is an accident of chance. It is only fair that the neurosurgeon, brilliant enough to get into medical school and earn a million dollars a year, should share some of that income with the janitor earning $30,000 who never finished high school. Income should be shared so we all have the best chances to reach our human potential, starting with access to good schools and an income to round out the rough edges of life. 

Rawls isn’t an easy read. His arduous style requires a hard-backed chair to keep the reader’s attention. (Neither was he an easy listen, a fact I learned personally when attending some of his lectures in my own university days.) Chandler humanizes Rawls’ work by clearly explaining his ideas to the average reader while defending a democratic form of liberalism against what he believes is a dominant neoliberalism that puts markets ahead of compassion. Chandler spends most of his book arguing for progressive government programs—caused by the widening gap between rich and poor—including higher minimum wages, stronger unions, and a guaranteed annual income while abolishing all private education and riding elections of private money. 

Professor Rawls’s A Theory of Justice has agitated critics on both sides of the political spectrum over the 50 years since its publication. The extreme Left has attacked Rawls for defending private ownership even though society would be left poorer but better off under a system of greater equality. On the Right, any form of taxation is unjust if wealth is earned legally without coercion, as Robert Nozick argues in Anarchy, State and Utopia in his response to Rawls’s defence of the welfare state. Moral philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt argues that eradicating inequality is a false goal when our attention should be on diminishing poverty—two very different things.

Chandler’s book is subtitled “A Manifesto for a Just Society” in the spirit of Marx’s phrase “From each according to his ability, to each according to need.” If you raise the cost of those with ability and lower the cost of those with need, don’t be surprised if you get less of the first and more of the second.  

Aside from underplaying the damage caused by identity politics and alienating many of the poor Rawls wants to help, Chandler’s greatest weakness is his underestimation of human nature. It may be true that those who enjoy the benefits of their gifts are the lucky ones, but many find it difficult to believe that all good fortune is undeserved or that effort plays no part in life’s success. Pushing that conclusion too hard will always get a strong reaction when most people see that determination and free will dominate how we lead our lives and the following benefits or costs. Diminishing earned accomplishments won’t bring us closer to a Rawlsian world searching for a “realistic utopia.” It will end up giving us the opposite.