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Verdict opens doors for Calgary independent schools to join public boards

Written on June 8th, 2007

Principal says there are benefits to remaining independent 

The verdict for a case last week in Calgary, Alta., has opened the doors for independent schools in that city to join public school boards outside the city as alternative programs. Last year two independent schools within Calgary city limits, Menno Simons Christian School, and Heritage Christian Academy, struck a deal with a school division in a neighbouring jurisdiction, the Palliser public school division, to receive alternative program funding. Essentially this means they receive full government funding under the umbrella of that school board but can maintain their Christian programming, with some regulations.

While other major centres in Alberta, including Edmonton, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and Red Deer, have embraced alternative schooling, Calgary has not, particularly not religious alternative schools.

The Calgary board of education launched a lawsuit against the Palliser school board, lost the case, and appealed. On May 30, the courts ruled the Palliser school board was acting within its authority and was correct in accepting two independent schools. All independent schools in the city now have the option to seek public school status with boards in neighbouring jurisdictions.

Stan Hielema is the principal of Trinity Christian School (TCS), an independent school in Calgary. The school was founded 14 years ago and has 260 students from kindergarten to Grade 9.

Hielema says the TCS governing body has a committee that is looking at the alternative school option.

“Some of these umbrella (public school boards) are very open to Christian schools,” says Hielema. “Not only are they open, but, at least according to how I read some of the agreements, they are very open for us to stay unique in how we do Christian schooling.”

But while he believes it behooves the school to at least look at the alternative school option, Hielema says there are definitely benefits to remaining independent.

He points to the Netherlands where Christian schools have been amalgamated with public schools for about 40 years now.

“There is essentially no difference between Christian and public schools now,” says Hielema. “The truth has become so watered down that schools are Christian by name only. There are no longer committed, Bible-believing Christians that teach in these schools … They really don’t teach Christian principles, Christian values. They don’t teach truth as found in God’s word.”

Hielema asks whether that could happen with the alternative schooling in Alberta as well.

“That’s the fear I have,” he says.

He concurs “all looks well” right now, especially in the financial sense. “But what about 20 years from now?”

In the years since alternative program funding came into effect in Alberta, Hielema has heard glowing reports from Christian alternative school teacher and administrators.

“They’ve said they’ve become way more purposeful in teaching a distinctively Christian worldview because they have to, because they’re alternative.”

Only recently has he started hearing some less positive reports, especially with regard to the fact that alternative schools are required to accept all students, regardless of their or their parents’ worldview.

“Some schools have grown so rapidly that they are losing that sense of community,” he says. “To me, that is at the core of our Christian school, having that distinct Christian community.”

Involvement in the school governing body has also appeared to decline at some schools, says Hielema.

“You put your money where your heart is,” he says, noting he has been very moved by stories he has heard of families in Ontario who have made great sacrifices so their children can have a Christian education.

“That sacrifice is in large part no longer there” with the alternative program funding, he says. “And that is also a huge part of community.”

Duane Plantinga is the executive director of the Association of Independent Schools and Colleges in Alberta (AISCA). He says the strongest motivation to have independent schools become alternative programs in public jurisdictions is due to the opportunity to generate greater revenues from the government.

He refers to a quote by Angus McBeath, former superintendent of the Edmonton Public School Board given in an interview for William Ouchi’s book Making Schools Work. McBeath tells how he relishes the competition in Edmonton:

There are next to no private schools. We put them out of business. We have thirty alternative programs. Two of Edmonton’s largest private schools joined us. We’ve gained market share, and that’s the game. We play that game twenty-four hours a day. We want 100 per cent of the kids. (Ouchi, 2003, quoting McBeath, p. 34)

AISCA’s stance is that the government needs to honour a diversity of school systems, including independent schools. The association recently made a presentation to the Alberta Minister of Education Ron Liepert about its concerns regarding the plight of Alberta independent schools. “Protecting the freedom of independent schools to reasonably conduct their own operations in a highly accountable fashion and enabling all parental choices for education to receive fair funding are ongoing concerns of the AISCA board,” the document, titled Ensuring Choice and Equity for all Students, stated.

Plantinga makes the case that while Alberta appears to be the most open to allowing for choice in education with its wide range of funded educational systems, “at heart there isn’t a real recognition for a very principled pluralism which says diversity is mandated at the root of it all.”

He compares Alberta’s independent school sector to that of Ontario’s, which has been forced for many years to operate its own institutions, build its own strengths around curriculum and supports, and even in some cases develop its own teacher accreditation.

He notes that in Alberta there is one certificate for all teachers and one Alberta program of studies.

“There has definitely been a compromise,” he says, concurring that may be a little strong of a term but it gets the point across. “There is still that tendency to want to say, ‘Let’s mold them into similar shapes to a degree and play down the diversity to a degree.’”

AISCA would like to see an alternative accountability model for reviewing and monitoring independent schools that allows the sector to take on more of that role, rather than centralizing all efforts within the Ministry of Education.

“Devising review requirements more in keeping with governance models that are more typical of independent schools would be more fitting,” states the association in its Ensuring Choice and Equity for all Students document.

AISCA would also like to see government funding for independent school students increased to help the sector continue to be “an important contributor to Alberta’s future” in the face of “aggressive competition from public alternative school policies that are backed by full government funds” (Briefing for Education Minister Ron Liepert February 6, 2007, p. 4).

Most students who attend independent schools in Alberta receive about $3,500 in government funding.