Homeschool boom brings tough choices for parents and rural schools

Several policy changes introduced by the UCP since forming government in 2019 have helped give the pandemic spike in homeschoolers staying power. There are now 25,261 students in home education or shared responsibility programs in Alberta, just below the 2020-21 high of 25,302 students.

Home education advocates, and the Alberta government, say this boom is a sign the expansion of choice in education offered by the province is working. Other parents feel they’ve been backed into the role of home educator because funding and service cuts have made it impossible for their child’s needs to be met within the public school system. For rural schools perpetually struggling to maintain viable enrolment numbers, the growth of a parallel education sector means more competition for shrinking budgets.

Home education takes a bigger share of Alberta’s student population than francophone schools and charter schools combined. And Alberta is home to one-third of all home-schooled students in Canada. One reason more parents have adopted home education compared to other provinces is that Alberta offers the most funding reimbursement for homeschoolers, says Judy Arnall, founder and former president of the Alberta Homeschooling Association.

“It's not as much (funding) as we need for high school. It could be higher. But it is substantial,” she said.

The 2023-24 education budget, for the first time, included $2 million for homeschooled kindergarten students. Another major change is the option for parents to forego funding and homeschool their kids without supervision or an approved curriculum, established in the Choice in Education Act, 2020. Both are changes home education advocates have been pushing for for years.

“The UCP have been very responsive. We have been asking for about four major things in the last seven years, and we've got them all. Well, mostly all of them in the last two years,” Arnall said.

While the homeschooling community has the attention of the province, some parents of kids with special needs say their concerns continue to fall on deaf ears.

“I never chose to remove my children from public school. I had to for the needs of my children,” Tarita Carnduff said.

“I didn't want to homeschool. I wish my kids could be attending school every day and be supported in the ways they needed.”

Carnduff started homeschooling her eldest son, who has been diagnosed with ADHD, learning disabilities and autism, because the Catholic school he attended in Okotoks was unequipped to provide an environment that met his needs. At times the school experience was the cause of considerable anxiety and mental health strain, reaching a climax when her son was forcibly put in a sensory room and left alone.

“It caused immense damage to my son, who hardly left his room for the next year. So that kind of forced us to move into homeschooling,” Carnduff said.

Carnduff, now living in Camrose, has since searched for an appropriate education provider for her son and younger daughter, who also has ADHD and lasting symptoms of Long COVID. She has tried homeschooling, which meant putting her career on hold, public distance learning, which came to an end when the Alberta Distance Learning Centre was defunded in 2020, and alternative school boards.

“I'm thankful we have flexibility to try and find what meets our children's needs. I don't like that we have to look in so many places to simply get the support children with disabilities need,” she said.

“I think that all children have a right to education, and it should be publicly funded. I shouldn't have to go out of my way to find school boards that understand special needs students.”

While Carnduff said adequately funding public schools would be a start, but major reforms are needed to create schools where neurodivergent kids can be safe, comfortable, and successful.

The Alberta Teachers Association has said that since the pandemic, the number of children with complex needs has increased. And at the same time, funding for programs and supports for students with complex needs has eroded.

In many communities, teachers are concerned about overcrowding in classrooms. For some rural schools, the difficulty lies in attracting enough students to keep the school open.

Rural Alberta is also where home education has seen the strongest growth.

“Everybody is really looking at this in terms of what it can do for their kids. We see a lot more growth in rural areas. Not so much in urban areas, in the cities,” Arnall said.

Candy Nikipelo, Aspen View Public School board chair, said K to 12 enrolments in the Athabasca region have been declining almost year over year and recently reached critically low numbers. In January, the board announced it would be closing the Rochester School at the end of the 2024-25 school year.

Nikipelo said the board doesn’t have hard data on where students go when they transfer out of local schools, but that there are a number of families across the division that have opted for homeschooling.

“Every family makes choices for their family based on their own beliefs and values, and that's something we always acknowledge and we respect,” she said.

“And, of course, that choice means that the public school division is divided up a little bit more. So that choice in education is good when you have lots of students, but if there is not a lot of students in an area, it can be tough on the small schools.”

When it comes to funding for education in rural areas, “the pie is only so big. And each time it's divided, then one system is losing. So, in this case, it's the public school system that would be losing out.”

The Aspen View School Division is one of 13 school boards that will receive a funding cut in the 2024-25 school year, with $646,458 less in its budget than the previous year.

After Rochester closes its doors, students who would have attended will be bussed to other schools in the region. That inconvenience of having to spend hours in transit is, in turn, one of the reasons Arnall said she’s heard from parents who choose to homeschool.

“When schools fall, even in the city, and a kid has to ride a school bus for 45 minutes in kindergarten or grade one, that is something parents don't want. That is bound to be a factor,” Arnall said.

“There are all kinds of reasons parents pull (their children) out. But it is unfortunate what it does to the schools left behind.”

Brett McKay, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, St. Albert Gazette