The dust-up between Alberta Education and the Trinity Christian School Association has been settled, but it’s hard to get enthused about how.
I mentioned this story , but since Alberta’s a bit off my beat and we don’t currently have any contributors from that area, the story never really got much air time here. Granted, it wasn’t really much of a SHAFT issue: yes it involved a Christian private schooling association, but the dispute was primarily about money… not the quality of education being provided. At any rate, the story seems to have wrapped itself up without the threatened court battle. The province “won”, but it was a pretty hollow victory for secularism in general.
I’ll give you the gist of the story, but please do bear in mind that I am a distant observer, so my facts may be disordered.
The story started back in
The audit uncovered a lot of shady shit: government funds were being used to purchase liquor, gift cards, expenses related to baby-sitting and funeral arrangements as well. But that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Alberta Education had provided $5.6 million of public funds to Trinity for their homeschooling program. While Trinity’s Cold Lake school only has 13 students, their homeschooling program serves ~3,500 students across the province – around a third of all the homeschooled students in Alberta. What Eggen’s auditors found was that Trinity had shuffled $5.2 million – around 93% – of that money to an organization called the Wisdom Home Schooling Society.
Who is the Wisdom Home Schooling Society? Excellent question. David Eggen was wondering the same damn thing.
Well, it probably won’t surprise you to turn out that the board of the Trinity Christian School Association and the board of the Wisdom Home Schooling Society are pretty much entirely made up of the members of just two families. The two companies were effectively paying each other and the family members privately… using public money… often at ridiculous rates.
For example, Wisdom was leasing a facility from one of the family members at ten times the market rate. Wisdom built a second facility by paying Trinity a cool half-million… which Trinity then sold to a foundation (the details of which I couldn’t uncover in time)… which then turned around and leased it to Wisdom. And remember, the Wisdom Home Schooling Society is not a school like the Trinity school in Cold Lake (which itself only has 13 students), so one wonders what kind of “facility” Wisdom really needs that they couldn’t get orders of magnitude cheaper.
All-in-all, the audit found that Trinity and Wisdom paid 32% of their operating expenses on office and administration costs, where the administration was mostly the two families, and the offices were mostly owned by those same people. Public boards spend 3.4% to 5.6%.
And $988,000 earmarked to be disbursed to parents over the last three years was simply… not. It just went into Wisdom’s bank accounts. As far as I know, it’s still there.
Here’s where the story gets a little murky.
According to Eggen, he tried to work with Trinity to sort all this shit out, but they weren’t being cooperative. According to Trinity, Eggen didn’t even give them a chance to explain themselves. In any case, Eggen acted. In , he shut down Trinity’s Cold Lake school, and effectively shut down their homeschooling program at the same time. Eggen told affected parents to seek education options elsewhere.
Now the issue became a public fight.
Trinity/Wisdom went on the defensive, of course. Unsurprisingly they played the Christian persecution card, but they also whined about the loss of “parents’ rights”, and rallied their thousands of client parents to agitate on their behalf. Alberta’s Wildrose Party jumped in, too… on Trinity/Wisdom’s behalf, natch.
But things quickly got even more complicated. Because while the primary reason for the kerfuffle in the first place was financial mismanagement, in his public statement Eggen also criticized the quality of education Trinity/Wisdom was providing. The government’s recommendation that parents ditch Trinity/Wisdom and seek education options elsewhere wasn’t made lightly. Completely aside from the quality question, the plain fact is that Trinity was recognized by the government… Wisdom was not. So all the students under the Wisdom label… well, Wisdom is not accredited, so their diplomas are simply worthless.
And then there’s the question of the quality of the education.
Graduates of Wisdom’s programs started coming out of the woodwork, alleging that not only were their diplomas useless when applying for post-secondary education, the actual education they’d received was bullshit. It was
a lot of Biblical analysis, and being told
evolution didn’t happen – one student said:
I really didn’t learn any science that would be acceptable to a lot of Canadian universities.
And through all of this, questions about whether private education should be publicly funded at all… or at the very least, if it is, how much oversight there should be. Alberta’s funding of private education is the highest in Canada: since 2008, private schools get 70% of the funding per student allocated to public schools. And it turns out, that’s not what Albertans want.
The issue actually came up earlier this year, when the Edmonton Public School Board renewed a call for the province to end public funding of private schools. This has been the Alberta Teachers’ Association’s position since at least the 1990s.
But let’s put all that aside for a moment, and return to the case at hand.
So for a while it looked like both Alberta Education and Trinity/Wisdom were gearing up for a fight in the courts. From where I’m sitting, it sure looked like it was going to be a slam dunk for Alberta Education, so I was among the voices cheering for Trinity/Wisdom to bring it on. Having them dragged through the courts would probably go a long way toward discrediting the public funding of private schools in Alberta.
Now, to be clear, from what it sounds like, the government “won”. It got everything it would have asked for had it won the court case. A province-appointed administrator will manage Trinity’s public funds for
at least one year. Wisdom has completely been booted
from governance or financial involvement in the education of students.
So, win, right?
As others have pointed out, while the province “won”, the way they spun their victory makes it look like it was a compromise, or even a concession. The title of the press release – and the phrasing Eggen himself used – speaks of “ensuring stability” for the students. The way it’s framed allows the other side to spin it as a victory on their part – they can sing the “we took on the government and made them back down” tune…. patently untrue when actually looking at the facts, but the kind of people that spin will appeal to aren’t really going to be looking too hard at the facts. And of course, it allows the political opposition to spin it as a failure on the part of the Notley government.
But the real problem of this “let’s just put it behind us” strategy is that it means we never get to really have that debate about the public funding of private schools in Alberta, or the oversight of the quality of education. The only thing “fixed” is that Trinity probably won’t be able to pull off as much financial fraud, at least in the short term. But the students being defrauded out of real educations? That doesn’t get addressed.
This may be the best we can hope for in Alberta right now. We have to face the reality of the political situation Rachel Notley’s NDP is facing. They are doing a fine job, in my opinion, but they are in a rather precarious position. They have to clean up the mess the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta spent over four decades making… without shaking things up too much, that they come to be considered too radical a change. They are also squarely in the cross hairs of the Canadian “alt-right”. They can’t really afford to do anything politically dangerous like trying to reform private education or homeschooling. It doesn’t even matter that it’s what the general public wants, or that the entire public school system has their back. That’s a viper pit of Christian privilege. There’s no foreseeable way wading into that can end well for the Notley government.
So… we won? Sorta? I suppose we won about as much as we could have hoped to win given Alberta’s political realities. At the very least, some Christian fraudsters are going to have a harder time ripping off the public… for a year, at least. The silver lining may be that the issue of public funding of private schools came up again, and that a major player in the publicly-funded private school industry got some serious egg on their face. It may be the case that our victory today is minor, but it could turn out to to be an important step leading to an ultimate victory for education in Alberta.