Independent schools (referred to as private schools in legislation) have been part of the fabric of Alberta since the province joined confederation. In fact there are independent schools that have been operating consistently since the early 1900s. Over the years there has been incremental growth in the number of students attending independent schools, as well as expansion in the number and types of schools. This year there are over 40,000 students in Alberta who attend an independent school. This includes students who attend community based Early Childhood Services organizations, and students who are home educated but are registered with an independent school.
Parents choose to send their children to independent schools for many reasons. Some schools are operated with a special focus on students with specific learning needs. Others are built to offer a unique type of educational approach like Montessori or Waldorf. Sometimes parents choose a school that respects and supports their child’s faith and world view (like Sikh, Jewish, Muslim or Christian), or because they want their child to learn about their culture, or for a specific academic, athletic or other educational focus. This past summer the government of Alberta formally recognized the rights of parents to choose the education for their children by passing school choice legislation.
For the past 50 years the government has also recognized that independent schools serve the public good by providing partial funding for students attending independent schools. This partial funding has allowed parents of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds to access independent schools; recent research suggests that in more than 80 per cent of independent schools in Alberta the average household income of the parents is slightly below the provincial household income average.
While the partial public funding helps, in order to be able to operate, many independent schools have to charge tuition. These fees will vary considerably depending on the kind of capital investments for buildings, teacher/student ratios, extracurricular program activities and other program enhancements. Additionally, there are often other fundraising initiatives that are run to help alleviate the cost of operating a school. Some schools also offer bursaries to assist parents in managing the tuition requirements. Parents from a broad socio-economic, cultural, religious and geographic background choose to send their children to independent schools.
Although each independent school is operated by its own school board, Alberta Education ensures thorough accountability measures are in place. Each year, the schools must submit an audited financial statement; this confirms that the public dollars the school receives are appropriately spent on the educational needs of the students. Most independent schools are accredited; to maintain this accreditation they must teach a program of studies that is approved by the minister of education, and they must hire Alberta-certified teachers. There is also regular on-site monitoring by Alberta Education staff, and schools must annually submit education results reports, and three-year plans.
Independent schools are also incredibly accountable to their parents; as schools of choice, there must be strong alignment between the needs of the student and the program being offered, or else parents will choose to place their child in a different institution. To ensure the school is meeting the needs of the child, there is often a heightened emphasis on collaboration and parental engagement in independent schools.
One of the most powerful arguments in support of independent schools is also the most basic. They serve a public good. Education, at its core, is about providing an opportunity for children to learn, grow and equip themselves to be ethical, engaged and innovative citizens. To ensure this occurs, Alberta Education surveys students, parents and teachers in all schools in Alberta each year. The results show that independent schools are very successful at meeting student needs.
During this past year, the pandemic has impacted the lives of all Albertans. For students in independent schools the shift saw similar challenges to the rest of the education system: switching to at-home learning in the spring, adjusting to new technologies, protocols for re-entry as school re-started in the fall. The value of independent schooling has only increased during this time. The close connection between the school and the home has allowed independent school leaders and teachers to make the required adjustments to learning in a way that fits the needs of their specific groups of students. The nimble and targeted response that independent schools have been able to demonstrate has ensured that the students in their care have continued to receive a high level of support as they navigated these uncertain times.
Independent schools are an integral component of Alberta’s excellent system of school choice.