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Scores of Alberta homeschooling supporters fear an erosion of parental rights

Judy Arnall, playing chess with son Scott in Calgary, has seen two of her home-taught children graduate from university.

Jeff McIntosh/The Globe and Mail

Bari Miller never learned about evolution in high school. She graded her own exams. She had few textbooks. She graduated without meeting Alberta's basic standards in classes such as English or science.

At 17, Ms. Miller ran away from home, escaping her mom and the education program she deemed shoddy. She dreamed of university, but without a grasp of the Big Bang theory or proper transcripts, was not going to get there.

Ms. Miller is a product the Wisdom Home Schooling Society of Alberta, which ran homeschooling operations for Trinity Christian School Association, a private school operator funded by the province. The Alberta government shut it down this week, alleging the two main families that run the organizations mismanaged millions of dollars to their own benefit.

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The New Democratic Party said in a detailed report that key players struck questionable land deals, charged exorbitant rental rates for offices they owned, and withheld taxpayer money intended for parents to use for resources, such as textbooks. The government says the relationship between Trinity and Wisdom and their approach to student evaluations were inconsistent with provincial legislation on homeschooling.

The NDP has alerted the RCMP and Canada Revenue Agency to its findings. It is up to those agencies to decide whether to investigate further.

Ms. Miller, who was taught at home by her mother in the Wisdom program from Grades 2 to 12, does not understand what took so long.

"My mom could do whatever she wanted with very little oversight," she said. "I could just show [facilitators] test results that I myself graded."

Ms. Miller graduated from Wisdom's program in 2010. (Trinity considered Wisdom a contractor, but the organizations share some senior officials, and that created financial conflicts, the government says.)

Ms. Miller believes someone should have addressed problems long before Alberta's department of education began to review Trinity's books last summer. She said her mom neglected to buy textbooks for her and her siblings some semesters, forgoing the government cash that would have gone toward the costs.

Money, rather than quality of education, was the Alberta's department of education's focus. One of the report's many allegations is that Wisdom, rather than Trinity, controlled $988,000 of government funding earmarked for parents over the past three years.

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Scores of homeschooling supporters – inside and outside of Wisdom's system – believe the NDP wants to shut down homeschooling. The parents say the government action was about politicians eroding parental rights.

Parent Judy Arnall says the NDP's move goes beyond Wisdom, and that the NDP is enforcing a stricter interpretation of the legislation. She says, for example, the government no longer allows expenses, such as gym fees for physical education teaching, thereby limiting what parents can provide for their kids.

"Parents are very worried that this is a slippery slope to shutting down parent-directed home education," she said.

Ms. Arnall teaches her kids through Calgary's Third Academy, a secular private homeschooling operation. Four of her five children have graduated high school under her instruction. Two have graduated university, one will finish this year, and the fourth intends to go soon. She has been at this 19 years.

Ms. Arnall is part of a new group of parents called the Alberta Home Education Parents Society (AHEPS). It is holding its first annual meeting this weekend in Calgary. Families started AHEPS in the summer to lobby the government because they worry the NDP will limit their homeschooling opportunities.

"We really need to protect parents' choice of curriculum and instructional methods," she said. "A lot of people think home education is textbooks and workbooks, [but] it can be anything from games to video games to textbooks."

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At the same time, she is sympathetic to the parents who taught under Wisdom, and to the Alberta government as it faces criticism. "I feel bad for the parents, but I think the government is our gatekeeper and they do need to ensure that tax dollars are spent legitimately."

The provincial government allotted $8-billion to its education department this year. Of that, $155-million is set aside for accredited private schools, such as Trinity and Third Academy. School boards and private schools that supervise a home education program are provided $1,670 a year per student and at least half of that is supposed to be offered to parents to offset qualifying expenditures.

Bricks-and-mortar public schools receive approximately $6,500 per student, as do charter schools, as a base amount. Private bricks-and-mortar operations receive 30 per cent less than those in the public and charter system. Trinity had 13 students in its physical school in Cold Lake, and about 3,500 at home. The government is encouraging parents to sign up with alternate school authorities. Students under 16 must be registered with a school.

Trinity and Wisdom issued statements asking parents to "await the intervention of the courts prior to taking steps to find new placements for their students."

Homeschooling in Alberta far outpaces that in British Columbia. For example, just 2,247 children were registered in B.C.'s public and independent homeschooling systems in 2015-2016.

Alberta Education Minister David Eggen dismisses allegations he shuttered Trinity for reasons beyond spending and accounting.

"My job is to ensure that public money is being spent as it should be," he said in an interview on Thursday.

Parents involved with Trinity and Wisdom say the move came without warning. The government said it long ago told Trinity its practises did not comply with the law.

The province said in the report that it warned Trinity in 1997 that its contracting structure with Wisdom breached the legislation.

After reviewing the association's 2013-2014 audited financial statements, the province again informed Trinity its contract with Wisdom and evaluation methods did not follow the law. The department said it raised concerns with Trinity for two years.

The association's inability to provide proper accounting sparked the department's more intense review this summer, the province said.

The report also found some salaries related to Trinity and Wisdom's two main families alarming. It said total compensation to all members of the two clans exceeded $2.76-million over three years.

Wisdom did not return several calls from The Globe and Mail seeking comment.

Trinity and Wisdom issued statements on Thursday, addressing some of the government's allegations.

"Trinity and Wisdom deny the accusations (e.g. misappropriation of funds) coming from Alberta Education. Wisdom's holding of funds on behalf of Trinity is neither illegal nor deceptive, a fact that is expected to be substantiated by the courts in the days ahead," the pair said.

Ms. Miller, now 23, is a Masters student in the University of Ottawa's political studies program. She could not get into university with her Wisdom credentials, so she took extra classes.

"It is not about taking choice away from parents," she said. "It is about ensuring that kids don't fall through the cracks, and if they chose to go to university, they have been adequately prepared for that."

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About the Author

Carrie Tait joined the Globe in January, 2011, mainly reporting on energy from the Calgary bureau. Previously, she spent six years working for the National Post in both Calgary and Toronto. She has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario and a bachelor’s degree in political studies from the University of Saskatchewan. More

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