Dr. Swann Debates Bill 1 – An Act to Reduce School Fees (Committee of the Whole) – 6 April 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Wednesday, April 6, 2017.

Bill 2 – An Act to Reduce School Fees (Committee of the Whole)

The Deputy Chair: Are there any comments, questions, or amendments to be offered with respect to this bill? The hon. Member for Calgary-Mountain View.

Dr. Swann: Thank you, Madam Chair. I have an amendment that I’ll circulate, and I will proceed when I hear from you.

The Deputy Chair: I just need the original, Member, and then you can go ahead.

Dr. Swann: My amendment reads as follows. I move that Bill 1, An Act to Reduce School Fees, be amended by striking out section 4.

Let me start by saying that I support the intent of the bill and what the bill does to make life more affordable for parents, guardians, and students in school. In fact, the Alberta Liberals believe the government should go even further by eliminating school fees altogether. However, I recognize that the government has chosen to take a step in that direction by reducing school fees.

I’d like also to point out that the government needs to find a more sustainable way to continue to reduce school fees other than, quote, finding efficiencies. There needs to be a funding plan that will continue to reduce fees over the long term, especially as our population grows and our education system becomes more costly. I expect the government may have an idea about where it wants to find these funds, and I will speak more about that in a moment.

When Bill 1 was announced, a government news release indicated: “If the bill is passed, Alberta parents will no longer have to pay school fees for instructional supplies or materials or for eligible students taking the bus to their designated schools.” This was great news and well received by many if not all Albertans. But when people started to take a closer look, it turned out that the term “Alberta parents” did not mean that all parents will no longer have to pay school fees. In particular, those who have students in charter schools can expect to get a different treatment altogether. Why is that?

Well, let’s take a look at what a charter school is. According to the government of Alberta’s Charter Schools Handbook:

A charter school is a public school that provides a basic education in a different or enhanced way to improve student learning.

. . . In general, charter schools complement the educational services provided in the local public system. They represent an opportunity for successful educational practices to be recognized and adopted by other public schools for the benefit of more Albertans. Although types of charter schools vary . . . they do have the following common characteristics.

Access – Charter schools cannot deny access [to any particular individual or group] . . .

Choice – A charter school will provide enhanced or innovative delivery of public education to students. This means that parents and students have increased opportunity to choose an education that best serves [their child’s] needs.

Curriculum – The curriculum delivered by charter schools will be structured around a basic education as defined by Alberta Education and described in the Programs of Study. Generally, education programs must meet the conditions outlined in section 39 of the School Act. This allows students to transfer to or from any public school with a minimum of disruption and to obtain a high school diploma . . .

Funding – Charter schools are eligible for the same provincial funding per student as any other public school . . .

Tuition Fees – Charter schools shall not charge tuition fees. However, they may charge parents for fees for instructional supplies or materials, as may all schools in the public education system.

It seems pretty clear to me, Madam Chair, from the government’s own description that charter schools are, in fact, public schools. Again I ask: why the special treatment? Why are they not receiving a reduction in school fees?

I received a letter from the Association of Alberta Public Charter Schools in which they write:

As full-fledged members of the public school community, we find the decision to exclude us from Bill 1 An Act to Reduce School Fees quite concerning.

. . . This is an excerpt from this letter:

“In publications and the Minister’s letter to parents . . .

And this is from the government side.

. . . we read, ‘Our government understands that times are tough for Alberta families and is working to make education more affordable. We believe that all students deserve access to a quality education in an Alberta school, and we are committed to reducing financial barriers such as school fees.’

Given this laudable and strong statement of support for Alberta families during tough times, we [in the charter school community] believe it may have been an oversight not to include those families who choose a public charter school for their child(ren)’s learning environment.”

Now, here is where I would disagree. I don’t believe this is an oversight at all. The association is likely being diplomatic in their language to the minister. It’s quite clear to me that the government is intentionally singling out charter schools for different treatment. My question is: why? Why is it not being transparent about its intentions? It appears to me the government wants to draw a line in the sand with regard to funding. On one side are the public schools; on the other are private schools. Clearly, in this bill the government is lumping charter schools together with private schools.

Now, if anyone was curious about the motivations, they would need look no further than Public Interest Alberta’s media release of February 23, 2017, in which they with 13 other organizations said, “[We] urge the provincial government to phase out the public funding of private schools . . . over three years and reallocate the money to fulfill its education-related campaign promises.” I think this is exactly the scenario the government is setting up with this bill, and if it is, they should be honest about it and not do it covertly through regulations. They should come right out with it and tell charter schools, their students, and parents that the government is going to reduce fees for everyone else, gradually raise fees for charter schools so that parents can get accustomed to paying more, and then slowly defund charter schools.

To be clear, Alberta Liberals believe public funds should go to support public education. Furthermore, we believe accredited private schools either need to be incorporated into the public system and be subject to all the same requirements or not receive public funding.

But charter schools are not private schools; they are public schools. In fact, many of these charter schools serve marginalized, low-income, and less abled students. They’re providing an essential support for some of the most vulnerable people in the province. For example, Almadina School Society serves the lowest income families in Calgary. The Boyle Street Education Centre in Edmonton is the same. The Centre for Academic and Personal Excellence Institute serves special needs in Medicine Hat. These charter schools and others like them play a valuable role in society and Alberta education. They are not cherry-picking students. They are filling a need, a need that has been recognized and accepted by the government.

Limited resources. If the government has acknowledged that – and they have – then limited resources should surely be directed to the lowest socioeconomic status schools, whether charter or other public. If we’re going to cherry-pick, let’s cherry-pick those who are most vulnerable financially. This is a move to help families with affordability and access to education. Do not discriminate against those who are most vulnerable. It’s against your principles. Do they not deserve the same treatment, especially given their vulnerability, many of them? Do the parents of their students not deserve the same reduction? When people see noncharter public schools not getting breaks, what does that do to enrolment?

The minister appears to be establishing one set of rules for those with school boards and a completely different set of rules for the charter schools. The Association of Alberta Public Charter Schools doesn’t think this is right, and I don’t believe that the government is being transparent on this matter. If the government wants to eliminate funding for charter schools, say so. Otherwise, the government should treat them like all other public schools and include them in the reduction of school fees.

This is why I’m proposing an amendment to strike out that section of Bill 1 and leave the original wording in the School Act. This would keep charter schools together with public schools, and any changes to the fees they can charge would be applied consistently across all public schools and to all parents, as was promised when the bill was announced.

Thank you, Madam Chair.