Underfunded and under attack, public education in Alberta is facing a new threat: public private partnerships.
The writing was on the chalkboard at a December symposium organized by Alberta Infrastructure Minister Ty Lund. One of the symposiums main goals was to push P3 school facilities on cash-strapped school boards, presenting P3s (alternative procurement opportunities) as a new way to finance and build schools. Presenters included CIBC World Markets, the Nova Scotia Department of Education and Nova Scotia P3 developer George Armoyan.
Privateers continue to point to the Nova Scotia example, despite the schemes outright failure. The provincial government cancelled any future P3 schools in June 2000, calling P3 schools elaborate and costly. The auditor general criticized the P3 process and the extra costs.
In addition to being far more expensive than publicly-financed and owned schools, Nova Scotia schools came under fire for not meeting community needs, with schools built to boost developers plans.
In Calgary, the Hamptons School is an Alberta example of developers calling the shots about where new schools will be built. Tirion Developments paid $750,000 towards the schools cost, with Alberta Learning putting up $450,000.
In Edmonton plans for a new Catholic high school linked to a grocery store are still being finalized, another example of corporations seeking to profit from public education.
Its a good way to get around zoning rules, says former Edmonton public school trustee Larry Phillips. New subdivisions allocate land for parks and schoolsthis is a great way for a grocery store to get around the zoning and get a prime location.
Numerous other partnerships were highlighted at the symposium everything from corporate sponsorships, to a Ford dealership sharing space with a high school, to so-called shared facilities, where community organizations share space under one roof with a school.
In at least one case, the shared facility arrangement has led to confusion and broken promises when it comes to school caretaking. A Calgary Catholic board school sharing space with the public library and YMCA is contracting out school caretaking, backtracking on a board pledge to keep custodian work in house. The Catholic board claims the situation is out of its hands, hiding behind the partnership agreement. Yet in a similar facility, the Calgary public school board uses its own staff.
The no-contracting-out promise came during a bitter 1998 strike that prompted Calgary Bishop Fred Henry to write to the Catholic school trustees, saying that the effect of contracting out is usually to eliminate decent paying jobs, in favour of non-unionized, low paying jobs. This is not in the public interest and is quite contrary to Catholic social teaching, he wrote.
Calgary Catholic board workers point to the high staff turnover, lower quality and security concerns that come with contract cleaning, documented in a wide-ranging Edmonton public school board study. Keeping cleaning in-house was cheaper, safer and more efficient in virtually every case.
In addition to P3 schools, the Alberta government continues to push another form of privatized education: charter schools. Promoted as an alternative to the public system, charter schools divert funds from public education into elite, inaccessible classrooms fragmenting communities and the education system.
Calgary parent Lynn Ferguson worries charter schools drain resources from the students most in need.
The schools are built around a certain program, like math or gifted programs. For children with special needs, if you remove the average or gifted children from the public classroom, the dollars go with them and youre left with the most expensive kids, says Ferguson, a member of SPEAK Support Public Education: Act for Kids.
There is another way to make sure everyone gets a good education smaller class sizes. We have overcrowded classrooms here. We should have quality and diversity of programs in the public system, and the government should be prepared to fund it. Instead, they are creating a two-tier system.
Calgarys three charter schools hold provincial charters and report to the provincial government, not the local board of education. Ferguson says the Calgary Board of Education refused to accept the charters because they didnt meet the boards mission statement, which was to educate every child to the best of their abilities.