The Losing Side of Choice

Over the past week the Calgary Board of Education(CBE) has held public meetings for parents at alternative programs affected by recent bell time and transportation changes. These were not public engagement sessions, they were information sessions. Opportunities for the CBE to inform families of the decisions made on behalf of families, affecting their children.

For years, the CBE has promoted programs of choice. As recently as last week the CBE announced a new program of choice an elite athletic program at Bowness High School. They have built an intricate system based on choice, what is really a system based on competition. Programs of choice also termed alternative programs compete for students from all across the city. These programs including the regular program compete for students and for funding.

The thing with competition is it’s great, while you’re winning. But eventually, in time, everyone loses.

Choice, is only a choice until it becomes unsustainable for the CBE to provide. And this has been happening all over the city for years.

Families have exercised their choice only to eventually have their children moved from one school to another, put in a school lottery, have programs and schools close, siblings separated due to boundary changes, bell times modified and fees increased.

These are only some of the changes to programs of choice that have happened over the years including:

  • Mandarin at King George moved to Highwood
  • French Immersion at Highwood moved to King George
  • Spanish bilingual students in NW redirected to W.O. Mitchell
  • Mandarín Jr High program in south closed
  • Langevin Science students in NE redirected due to boundary changes
  • Canyons Meadows Spanish bilingual redirection, also impacting Robert Warren
  • Closing of Canadian Studies program
  • Creation of dual track program schools
  • Most recently, ALL alternative programs are affected by bell time changes and the move of Middle and Junior High students to transit.

CBE is telling Calgarians these changes are a result of provincial legislation under Bill 1. Always stating the important reminder that the CBE is actually not obligated to get your child to school if you choose one of the programs they’ve been offering and selling to students and families. However, school boards are to a large degree autonomous. Many school boards across the province do not offer alternative programming at all and certainly not to the degree offered in Calgary. It is the obligation of Alberta Education to provide education equitably across the province.  It has been the CBE’s autonomous decision to continue to offer AND PROMOTE programs of choice in a manner it cannot sustain.

The past few years at the CBE have seen a year over year increase in school fees and financial burdens and barriers placed on families across Calgary. Just 7 years ago, bussed students did not pay noon supervision fees. Then, bussed students were required to pay that fee. Shortly thereafter, bussing fees increased from $300 to $335 per student per year with the elimination of the family cap. Now, the CBE will increase costs for some families to send children on city transit to schools up to $700 student per year. And when these fees increase, we are told those decisions are “operational” decisions not open for engagement to the public. Thereby creating an environment in which our children’s education is a consumer good rather than a public/civic responsibility.

You are told you have CHOICE:  Which is great until they decide to take it away from you.

Fees continue to increase:  It’s manageable until it’s not financially viable for your family anymore.

Transportation changes: Seem fine until you see multiple bus transfers, changes to bell times and separation of siblings and it just won’t work for your family.

This is not Public Education, this is PRIVATIZATION of our public system.

Students/Families have been sold an illusion. A choice that has fine print. *Available until such time as the provider deems fit.  Parameters subject to change at any time

What is the solution? Can CBE families find something agreeable and manageable for fall 2017? Should parents boycott all fees? Should families return to community schools? Should Calgarians collectively protest at the CBE? We, SOS Alberta are open to suggestions.

But we believe, that we should no longer be divided by programs, left to defend our choices, pitting one program against another, neighbour against neighbour and instead, collectively oppose these changes that threaten our communities. The implication in this plethora of choice is that some schools are better than others and a program of choice is superior to a regular program school.

Perhaps, we should be considering the longer term solution of emphasising the value of community schools and demand a rich and diverse curriculum in every public school that includes languages, includes arts, includes athletics, and includes science. Perhaps our kids shouldn’t have to choose. Perhaps public education should not come with an asterisk or fine print.  Perhaps we shouldn’t have to wonder every year what changes will make our children’s and families experience in the system more financially, logistically and emotionally difficult. Perhaps we shouldn’t let them lead us down this hole of privatization. Because the options before many of us today are not things we can buy our way out of, nor should we have to.





5 thoughts on “The Losing Side of Choice”

  1. This seems to me to be a terrible idea for several reasons, but if you look at history, forced collectivisation never ends well. This seems like something they would have done in the USSR. With the backlash against the “common core” nonsense that seeks to “equalise” everything, don’t you think this is going to make people push back? I am not even religious at all and yet I was raised Catholic so I checked out both Catholic and the Public systems in Edmonton and it so happened that the Catholic school was better in every way so I sent my son there and he loves it! You want to take away the PARENTs ability to choose and replace it with the STATE making that choice, to which I say the Parent always should be the one making the decisions for their children! Also what if you are dissatisfied with your child’s school? Complain to the bureaucracy and wait for something to probably not happen? Ridiculous!

  2. I am a former trustee with the CBE. I served from 2003 – 2013. Prior to 2003 I was involved with parent groups in Calgary.

    A little historical perspective. In the early 90s the CBE was widely criticized for not offering choice. CBE offered French Immersion but no other programs of choice. Many other school boards most notably Edmonton Public Schools offered different programs. Parents were asking for choice particularly in programs that would address different learning styles of children (for example a more traditional learning style such as is now offered in TLC or the Montessori program.) They were also asking for languages other than French.
    The CBE made the decision to move towards offering more choice but any decisions would be run through the filters of excellence, equity and access. There was much discussion at the time. The decision made was to place programs in schools throughout the city and to make transportation available to programs of choice so that any parent, regardless of their situation, could choose a program that best suited their child. This meant as well that CBE would attempt to have enough spaces in programs to enroll all students wishing to attend. Also as part of the decision there was a recognition that very likely most parents would continue to choose their community school and that should be celebrated as well. To this day it is still vast majority that prefer their community school and community schools offer very strong well balanced programs. Nothing should be taken away from parents who make that choice but at the same time parents who make a different choice should be supported as well. This is part of parents saying that they want to be involved in decisions in their child’s education.

    In the subsequent roll out of this decision there were many challenges and there continue to be many challenges. One of the main ones continues to be transportation. The alternative programs do not receive any additional funding but it does cost somewhat more to transport students. During the years there were many discussions within the CBE on how to prevent transportation from becoming the determining factor in program offerings. Unfortunately that is not always possible and looking forward it seems that transportation will now play a major part in some parents decisions on which program they would like to have their child enrolled in.

    Another challenge is to figure out how many students will be enrolled in what programs and where those programs are needed in the city. You reference changes in location and some programs shutting down. That is to be expected when you are responded to demand and demand changes over time.

    Choice is never unfettered (and I give credit to Dr. Brendan Croskery for continually reminding the board of trustees of this.) There are always competing interests. For example, the question around who pays for transportation to programs of choice has always been at the forefront. Should the public though taxes pay for this transportation? Should the full cost fall on the parents? If the full cost does fall on the parents and therefore only certain parents can make the choice to attend a certain program how does that promote an equitable public education system? If no transportation is provided how is that equitable?

    Offering choice to parents does not equal privatization. Robust choice can be offered within a public education system if that choice is made available to all and access is provided.

    Unfortunately Bill 1 takes away some of the decision making authority of local school boards. Each school board developed in different ways as they listened to their public. Now all must conform with constraints of Bill 1. And from my perspective it is hard to determine what the intended result of this bill is in terms of improving education for students in this province. Sure it will save some parents (a very particular group of parents) money but the long term impact on the ability of school boards to offer programs that parents want will have more consequences for students. And those consequences will not be positive.

  3. – While I am a CBE trustee, I am writing this on behalf of myself only. I felt that I needed to clarify a few things in your post.
    – The new athletic program at Bowness is one of many high school pathways that the CBE offers to students similar to how students can gain dual credit at post-secondary institutions while in high school, or how they can participate in registered apprenticeship programs. These programs have been very successful in keeping students engaged in education who would otherwise drop out of school. Just because not every school can afford to offer every program option does not mean that different school should not provide different options that benefit student learning.
    – The CBE does not offer alternative programs in order to create competition amongst schools. You seem to equate all alternative programs as “better” than regular programs which is not true at all. They are simply different. They do not get more funding than regular programs and closing them all down would only result in school closures in older communities, overcapacity schools in the suburbs, more lotteries, and students being forced to bus great distances rather than choosing to bus. These students still need schools and staff whether they are in a regular or alternative program. The dollars that could be saved in operational costs by closing a few schools would be negligible, while the closure could be detrimental to the future viability of that community. All alternative programs were started and grow in response to parental demand. Parents make choices for many different reasons and I refuse to judge parental decisions on what they feel is best for their child and their family.
    – Alternative programs are not unsustainable. Again, every student needs funding and students in alternative programs do not receive more funding than those in regular programs. The transportation to alternative programs is challenging and the CBE has created a sustainable transportation plan which does not require the use of any instructional funds. However, transportation is a completely independent issue. As long as there is demand for alternative programs, then they are sustainable, and when there is no demand, they are closed down.
    – Change is inevitable in a growing city, and boundary changes, bell time changes, lotteries, etc. would also have happened if everyone was in a regular program. Many community schools have been impacted by population changes throughout the years that have required moves as well.
    – It is not true that all alternative programs are being affected by bell time changes and moving to transit. Five schools are moving to transit for September and the bell time changes also affected many community schools.
    – Fees have not risen as a result of choice. Fees have risen as a result of inadequate provincial funding.
    – The CBE has heard from parents that they wanted all programs treated equally so that programs and communities would not be pitted against each other. And that is what the CBE has tried to do until Bill 1 forced alternative programs to be treated differently come September.
    – Even if there were unlimited funding for community schools, there is limited time. Should students not be given choices as to how they want to spend that time? Maybe some want to focus more on a language, while another wants to focus more on athletics or science or art. Every school cannot offer everything as there simply is not enough time to specialize in everything. In Canada, we value diversity and differences. Why shouldn’t we value that in our public school system as well?

    1. Not enough is being done to align bell times for family/ student/ parent desires and convenience, when siblings attend same program/ different schools ( in our case: Spanish bilingual). 45 minutes difference!!
      Furthermore, if you are considering city bus transportation with multiple bus/train changes, to be safe and any kind of viable option for a middle school child, aka a 10 year old ( BARELY considered old enough to be home alone!), how on earth do you expect to convince me that I should be paying your noon time fee. If CBE deems 10 years old as old enough to be alone taking city transportation, I’m pretty sure they can safely stay in their school over lunch hour, unsupervised!
      Also you’ve got to allow the middle school kids into school at least 30 minutes before first bell, if you’re not willing to better align bell times.
      I’m a parent of a child at Canyon Meadows as well Robert Warren.
      Part of what parents are finding outrageous is this lack of effort and planning on CBE’S part, to work with parents to find ANY solutions.
      I understand that the government bill 1 has left CBE in a very bad place BUT there are some things CBE could be working on with parents/ families. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

      1. Dealin, I have written a blog post around the transportation and bell times issue at
        The CBE does want to work with parents on how to best implement the decisions, but there are a lot of moving pieces. As I am not the trustee for Canyon Meadows/Robert Warren, I am not as familiar with the specifics of what is being done in that case and I encourage you to work with your principal and Area Director on possible solutions. I am sorry that these changes are such a challenge for your family and I do wish that the CBE had more time to engage and plan with parents across the city around this.

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