Attack on private education misrepresented the facts

I would like to take this opportunity to share some thoughts about a guest editorial written by Kelly Ernst and published in the Advocate on Monday, April 15, under the headline Albertans don’t support privatizing public education. In particular, I would like to share my concerns about the manner in which information pertaining to the funding of private schools was presented, and the alleged neutrality of the study referenced by Ernst.

I would like to take this opportunity to share some thoughts about a guest editorial written by Kelly Ernst and published in the Advocate on Monday, April 15, under the headline Albertans don’t support privatizing public education. In particular, I would like to share my concerns about the manner in which information pertaining to the funding of private schools was presented, and the alleged neutrality of the study referenced by Ernst.

Ernst claims that 70 per cent of public funding available per student is allotted to private schools, when this amount refers only to the instructional grant. In reality, private school grants per student are in some cases as low as zero per cent. The actual total grant level is just above 60 per cent. This percentage would be even lower if transportation grants were taken into consideration.

Ernst states that allotments for private education will increase in the next three years, yet these are simply projections based on assumptions upon which he fails to elaborate.

Ernst also fails to mention the elimination of operational grants to private schools in the provincial budget released March 7, which has imposed a real reduction of over 10 per cent in total grant revenues for private schools. The elimination of these grants has had a total effect of about a two per cent reduction in revenues for fully funded schools. Yet he insists that private school funding is not only increasing, but outpacing funding for public schools.

Ernst makes extensive use of a survey, created and conducted by his organization, in a manner that is biased and opaque. He presents percentages of respondents without giving the actual number of respondents this represents. Specifically, he cites the responses of privately educated survey participants, the majority of whom feel that no public money should be allocated to private schools. What is the actual number of respondents who hold this position? That number could be negligible, but he fails to disclose this.

Some of the information the respondents provide is presumptive and anecdotal. He writes that many of the respondents “clearly describe the consequences of further changes” to the education system. In other words, he claims that such predictions are authoritative. I must question his, or anyone else’s, capacity to affirm these predictions as they are, by definition, hypothetical. The fact that opinions exist does not, in and of itself, make them fact.

Ernst also states that “those who can afford the extra tuition” remove funding from public education. However, the funding statistics he provides in prior paragraphs indicate that much of this funding does not follow them. One can only conclude that their decision is actually revenue positive for the public purse, which is indeed the case. He attempts to mask this by presenting private education as “administratively burdensome and expensive to maintain,” yet makes no attempt to explain this contradiction.

Ernst uses the words “parents” to describe those who opt for public education, but those who do not are described as the agents of murky and sinister “private interests.” I must emphasize that they are also parents and members of the public who shoulder a proportionate share of the tax load and are entitled to the same rights and protections as any other citizen.

It would seem that the survey commissioned by the foundation Ernst represents is seriously flawed — that we are to believe that 99.5 per cent of respondents of any allegedly representative survey come to the same conclusion about a complex issue is, in and of itself, ludicrous. I am reminded of another “survey” in which 99.96 per cent of the respondents came to the same conclusion — the election of Saddam Hussein as president of Iraq in 1995!

It is important to remember that our unquestioned right to express ourselves does not include a guarantee of its responsible use. That right ought not to be used to cloud the truth, which can only impede our collective efforts to achieve a society committed to what is just, right and ultimately beneficial for all. Sadly, it seems to me that in the final analysis Ernst has misrepresented the facts and relegated the informed decisions of present and past governments, and the opinions of many whose votes put them there, to the ideological dustbin on the authority of a survey of questionable design. I can only hope that the readers of his editorial have given it a careful reading and come to the same conclusion.

Pete Hoekstra

Lacombe