Dr. Swann Debates Bill 1 – An Act to Reduce School Fees (Second Reading)

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Tuesday, March 7, 2017.

Bill 1 – An Act to Reduce School Fees (Second Reading)

Dr. Swann: Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. It looks like we’ll have a few minutes left to wax eloquent on Bill 1, An Act to Reduce School Fees, a welcome addition to the Legislature. I think you’ll find unanimous consent for this and maybe not unanimous consent for how you’re going to finance it. That may be the challenge that you’re up against. Borrowing is not a solution if we don’t have a long-term plan to address this important contribution to young families particularly.

Of course, it was under the PCs that these fees got out of control. Under the Klein cuts in the ’90s the schools had to make up the reduced income they were getting to function, and Ralph Klein’s government allowed schools to levy whatever fees they wanted, so they went from about $80 a child in 2008 up to $240 a child in 2012 and even higher since. The only question, I guess, that all of us need to look at is: how can we continue to spend more and not get into trouble for those very children and their future and the level of debt they’re going to incur?

One suggestion we have on the Liberal side – and it’s been in our platform for some time – is to phase out the private school fees as they’re able to and find the resources to sustain some of their needs, not suddenly but over the course of five to 10 years. That would amount to something like, I believe, over $200 million. That could help to sustain the kind of reduced school fees in the public system that I think we’re all looking for. According to my research $248 million is now being paid for private schools in Alberta. That would go a long way in moving us towards a sustainable source of funding and satisfy us that we’re honouring our commitment to public education while not compromising some of the special schools that are in the province that have to be subsidized because of disabilities – learning disabilities, physical disabilities, autism, and significant learning disabilities – and that at this point are under the private purview, perhaps.

I guess that in the short time that I have, I just wanted to make the point that we certainly support this. It’s another important step that this government is taking to make living more affordable for lower income people and education accessible for more people at the lower income levels and allow people to keep their own money and use it in other ways. We often hear from this side of the House: leave money in people’s pockets. Well, that’s exactly what you’re doing in this case. You’re leaving more money in people’s pockets to spend in other ways that they consider valuable and preferable for their own families.

However, borrowing is not an answer in terms of the longer term. We have to be careful that this is also a slow transition away from private school funding and ensure that we deal with the special populations that they are dealing with. We believe that there should be more support for wraparound services, including affordable lunch programs and transportation, as is indicated in this bill.

Subject to hearing more about just how we’re going to fund this, we will certainly be providing provisional support from this side of the House. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

The Speaker: Any questions under 29(2)(a) to the hon. Member for Calgary-Mountain View? The Government House Leader.

Mr. Mason: Well, thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. I can either adjourn the House, or I can ask the hon. member under 29(2)(a) to enlighten us further for a couple of minutes about the Liberal plan to make education more affordable.

The Speaker: There’s a question under 29(2)(a).

Dr. Swann: Well, I would be very pleased to add more to what I’ve said. The Liberal plan has been outlined in our platform for a number of years along with the message about shifting more of the private school funding to the public school system. I think that is well recorded. I’m pleased that the government is borrowing our policy and looking at that still although the minister has been a bit ambiguous about exactly what he’s going to do with the private schools. I hope he will become more clear with time and ensure that we do provide the more fair response to a public system that is struggling. I encourage the government to look more seriously at that private funding source.

The Speaker: Hon. member, under 29(2)(a)?

Mr. Hanson: Yes. I’d just like to clarify: is it your party’s position to defund private schools and charter schools?

Dr. Swann: It’s our position that over time we should bring all the school systems under one public school system. That will not be quick or easy because, as I indicated, there are some special schools that are only funded by private funds right now. But the goal is the same, to ensure that public funds go to public schools over a period of five to 10 years.