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Independent Schools Are a Win-Win. Alberta Needs to Step Up and Get on Board

This article originally ran in The Hub on May 22, 2024.


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.

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?

  • Catharine Kavanagh is the Alberta liaison officer for Cardus.

May 22, 2024

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Unlocking the potential of independent school growth.