Competing interests for funding between the growing charter school system and struggling public schools are on the rise after the UCP government’s increasing support for charters in recent weeks.
Charter schools say they’re thrilled with a $72-million funding injection they received this week from Alberta Education for operating and capital costs, as well as supports for special-needs kids.
But public school advocates say the UCP’s growing commitment to a charter system they say limits student access with long wait lists creates a two-tiered system that shortchanges the majority of Alberta students who attend the public system.
“This is the accelerated erosion of public education in real time,” said Medeana Moussa, executive director with the Support Our Students advocacy group.
“Charter schools are a pathway to a tiered system that fragments neighbourhoods and societies. It is money going to a few at the expense of the many.”
This week, Premier Jason Kenney encouraged parents to expand charter schools, hoping for a “flowering” of the system, and touting a $25-million injection to be used for charter school lease payments and another $47 million to renew capital infrastructure.
As well, Alberta Education has confirmed charter schools have been granted access to the same learning supports for special-needs students that public, separate and francophone schools receive for the 2022-23 school year, with more details to be released before the end of March.
Kenney said the province needs to “ensure that kids with special needs get adequate support in public charter schools, because they have not been receiving equivalent funding to other public schools in the past.”
Lisa Davis, co-founder of the STEM Innovation Academy, a Calgary charter school with about 400 students on the wait list, said the funding corrects an unfair imbalance that saw special-needs kids in charters receive only 25 per cent of the funding other students did.
“We are a public, inclusive school, and our students deserve the same supports as their peers,” she said, noting that charter schools have the same percentage of special-needs students as the Calgary Board of Education, about 17 per cent.
Davis estimated STEM Academy will get about $300,000 in additional funding, helping special-needs kids with mild, moderate or severe challenges and increasing staff development to support all learners.
Jeff Wilson, board chair at Foundations of the Future Charter Academy, which has 14,000 kids on a wait list, said the funding will allow them to build a stronger support system that could include more counsellors, teacher assistants, psychologists and speech therapists.
“This funding will be very impactful,” Wilson said, estimating his school will get nearly $2 million.
But Jen Allan, who has three special-needs kids attending public schools just north of Calgary, says she has watched their supports slowly erode — from occupational therapy to speech language pathology — as government funding does not keep up with growth and inflationary costs.
And because of the pandemic, special-needs kids are now facing insurmountable challenges after trying to learn from home without the supports they usually receive at school.
“This latest move from our government — providing charter schools with outrageous amounts of funding — has only proven to parents, teachers and support staff of these children trying to survive in the trenches that we don’t matter,” Allan said.
“There is absolutely no need to disassemble and dissect our education system. We don’t need two-tiered education that will only create further divisions in so many areas amongst not only children but families and communities.”
Allan added that last year’s clawback of PUF (Program Unit Funding), which provided learning supports for at-risk kids in preschool to Grade 1, will create devastating consequences for the youngest students.
When CBE debated its budget last May, trustees approved a $6-million deficit to PUF due to what officials called a lack of funding from the province, calling it a cruel blow to the system’s most vulnerable kids.
And earlier this month, CBE trustee Susan Vukadinovic suggested the CBE address a lack of funding by applying for some of the $47 million set aside for unique “collegiate” programming in charter schools, arguing public schools also offer unique programs.
Sarah Hoffman, education critic for the Opposition NDP, said the UCP is eroding funding for all students, and then bolstering a charter system run by parents as a way of off-loading basic government responsibility.
“They have starved funding for all students. And then they try and nickel and dime funding back to charters, but they’re pulling the money out of the public system and just picking winners and losers,” Hoffman said.
“Quality education is rooted in helping kids with the opportunity to succeed, yet they keep delegating the responsibility to parents and volunteers.”
Katherine Stavropoulos, press secretary for Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, argued school boards across the province are well-funded.
“Alberta Education’s Learning Support Funding supports our most vulnerable students and children. Learning Support Funding grants support specialized learning needs or groups of students who may require additional supports from school authorities,” she said.
“This funding envelope now totals more than $1.4 billion. This includes funding for Specialized Learning Support Grant and Program Unit Funding, as well as other grants.”