Setting up publicly-funded schools for failure

Written by Brenda Schimke

“Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t,” said Trustee Ken Checkel during the final budget deliberations at the most recent Clearview Board of Trustees meeting.

Trustees at the time were discussing reserves and what would a prudent manager running a $35.5 million-dollar operation keep on hand for the unexpected.

“On one hand, the government is whining every year about school boards and their reserves”, said Checkel. “They criticize when our reserves are too large, sometimes they claw back reserves. But if you look at the Calgary Public School Board (CSB), they (the government) then criticize that they (CSB) didn’t keep enough money in reserve to handle the situation.”

The situation was created when the provincial government in October 2019 unilaterally pulled millions of dollars back from previously approved school budgets. Staffing had been set, students were in the classroom and programs were underway. Presto, Clearview lost $400,000 overnight, and larger city school boards were slammed with multi-million-dollar, mid-year cuts.

Schools boards are faced not only with unforeseen circumstances such as a leaky roof, but must try and manage reserves to deal with fickle politicians and erratic funding.

It brought to mind another discussion that happened at the Clearview Board meeting on March 18. Trustees who had attended the Rural Education Conference in Edmonton came back gushing about how well they were treated by a huge contingency of United Conservative Party (UCP) cabinet ministers and MLAs. Vice-Chair Neitz threw a little cold water on the love-in by acknowledging in the first year of the Notley government the same thing had happened.

But it was Trustee John Schofer, a non-attendee at the conference, who asked the pertinent question. Did you ask why year-over-year more public money is going to private schools?  Chairman Hayden said, yes, and the answer was private schools have growing enrollments.  Schofer’s reaction struck me as someone who was in complete disbelief that public school trustees would just accept that answer without push back.

I too pondered Hayden’s response. Private schools are getting more students as public schools receive inconsistent funding and are often used as a punching bag by the UCP government. 

Legislation is being changed at mach speed to give charter schools autonomy from school boards—another important step towards a two-tier educational system. 

My question, who is fighting for public education?

The issue with private, charter and even Catholic schools is they all have a veto over who can attend—an unfair advantage.  Difficult students, students whose first language isn’t English, special needs students, students who practice a different religion, LGBTQs and poor students can be turned away.

The logical next steps will be to eliminate elected trustees, introduce performance funding and establish a voucher system where funding goes with the student. It takes away economies of scale, spreads even thinner scarce financial resources, and creates winners and losers. 

Unlike all the other options, public education is the big loser–it’s the system that can’t pick and choose students to enhance their ‘performance’ and grow their funding.

The UCP script about choice is just wrong. 

Choice in education isn’t about public, private, charter or home-schooling.

Educational choice is either a strong publicly-funded education system where all children, regardless of differences, can attend; or a two-tier system—one for the privileged and one for the marginalized. 

Northern European countries are the model of the former; America and Britain are models of the latter.

Two-tier education always leads to greater societal divides—more elitism, more economic inequality, more tribalization, more racism and more violence—simply because it leaves behind a vast number of marginalized kids ill-prepared to contribute positively to society when they reach adulthood.


B. Schimke, News Journalist

About the author

Brenda Schimke

Schimke is a Graduate with Distinction from the University of Alberta with a BCom degree. She has lived and worked in Alberta, BC and Ontario.