Patti Bacchus: Will we ever stop funding private schools?

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      I’m all for paying taxes to fund public schools for everyone’s kids. We all benefit from an educated society, and public education is a public good. I’m fed up, however, with my tax dollars going to support elite public schools that charge more than $20,000 a year in tuition and exclude students they don’t see as “good fits”. I’m not keen on public money going to private religious schools, either.

      You want to opt out of the public-school system and go private? Go ahead, but keep my tax dollars out of it.

      I’m not the only one who feels that way. Vancouver School Board (VSB) trustee Carrie Bercic, who became OneCity Vancouver’s first candidate elected to office in last October’s by-election, is serving notice at the April 3 VSB public meeting that she’ll be asking the board to vote on a motion to call on government to stop funding elite private schools and to put that money into public schools instead.

      By “elite” schools, Bercic is referring to what the B.C. government classifies as “Group 2” schools—the ones that spend more per student than public schools do. Those schools tend to be the university-prep types with sharp uniforms and exclusive admissions processes that weed out those who aren’t deemed to be up to snuff. There are a handful of those in Vancouver, including St. Georges, Crofton House, West Point Grey Academy, and York House, that charge north of $20,000 a year in tuition on top of the grants they get from government and generous donations from wealthy alumni.

      Group 2 schools are eligible for 35 percent of the per-student amount that goes to public schools. Group 1 schools, which include faith-based and other private schools that spend the same or less per student as public schools, get 50 percent of the per-student government operating grants. In B.C., that adds up to almost $400 million a year of public money going to private schools, which is $400 million too much, if you ask me.

      Bercic is only asking for an end to Group 2 funding, but I’d go further and put a stop to all of it. If you want your kids to get a religious education, that’s your business, and there should be a clear separation between church and the state’s treasury.

      Glaring contrasts

      While cash-strapped public-school boards have been cutting everything from school librarians, music programs, specialist teachers, administration, supply budgets, maintenance, and more due to inadequate government funding, schools like St. George’s offer a rich range of academic, fine arts, athletic, and enriched programs in country-club-like settings with state-of-the art facilities equipped with topnotch sports facilities and hallways furnished with grand pianos.

      They do all that with a little help from you and me, to the tune of more than $2 million in annual funding grants from the Ministry of Education each year for St. George's alone. You may not be able to afford to send your own kids there (and they might not be accepted even if you could), but you get to chip in whether you want to or not.

      Just two kilometres from St. George’s sits the seismically at-risk Queen Elizabeth elementary school, which lost its outstanding strings program to a round of budget cuts last year. It’s probably a little chillier than St. George’s on winter days, too, as the VSB voted to turn down the heat on cold days to save money. It’s quite a contrast.

      And although it’s fun to pick on St. George’s because that’s where our former premier sent her son while she and her government put the squeeze on B.C.’s public schools, it’s not the only expensive “university prep” school happily taking taxpayers' dollars to supplement tuition fees from well-heeled parents.

      There are several on the island as well, including Victoria’s St. Michaels University School, which collects about $2 million a year in government funding, while Glenlyon Norfolk gets more than $1.6 million.

      Despite 16 years of what felt like the B.C. Liberal government’s nasty war on public education and teachers, B.C. still has what is arguably one of the best school systems in the world, and it consistently performs well in international comparisons. There’s no valid reason to fund alternatives—especially those that are only accessible to wealthy kids who meet rigorous entry criteria that can include interviews, tests, references, and marks on previous report cards. If you’re not up to snuff or have special needs, they can simply turn you away.

      Compare that to public schools that accept everyone and strive to meet the needs of a wide range of students—and do so fairly well, all things considered. Now that’s something I’m happy to support.

      It’s a little different for faith-based and other Group 1 schools that have more inclusive admissions policies and charge lower tuition fees, but I’m against funding those as well. My position is that public funds should go to public schools. Period.

      The flawed case for funding private schools

      I’ve heard the arguments. They go something like this:

      1. Parents are subsidizing public schools by sending their kids to private schools that only get partial funding. I don’t have kids in school but I pay school taxes too, and so do lots of childless folks. We all pay taxes toward schools, and private-school parents aren’t subsidizing anyone. It’s like me saying I’m subsidizing community centres by going to a private gym. Nope, we pay our fair share of taxes toward a public good that we may or may not use, just like libraries, community centres, transit, and medical care. You don’t get to opt out and ask for a subsidy to go elsewhere and nor should you.
      2. How will public schools deal with the influx of private-school kids if funding is cut off? Private schools existed and thrived long before Bill Bennett decided to start funding them in the late 1970s. I went to one myself for a couple of years and my parents paid the whole shot and didn’t expect others to subsidize their choice. Many private schools would manage just fine without our public dollars, and districts like Vancouver that have excess school capacity could welcome students back and be able to provide a wider range of course options in underenrolled schools if some chose to return to the public system. Public schools operate on economies of scale, and some kids cost a lot more to educate than others. An influx of private-school kids from supportive, well-to-do families wouldn’t have the financial impact some fear they might.
      3. What about students with special needs who aren’t getting the help they need in public schools? I understand why some parents feel compelled to enroll their kids in schools that specialize in teaching students with special needs. These schools offer very small classes with specialized instruction and, in some cases, charge more than $25,000 a year in tuition, in addition to the government grants. Which is great if you can afford it (and I know that many families who really can’t manage scrape it together anyway), but what about the majority of parents who just can’t? Is it acceptable for those kids to get a substandard education in their public schools? Of course not.

      There’s no question our public schools aren’t doing as good a job as they could in educating students with special needs, but it’s largely because they don’t get enough funding. If they had the kind of funding some of these specialized private schools do, I have no doubt they could have as good or better outcomes. By diverting public funding to specialized private special-education schools, it’s sending a message that we’re letting the public system off the hook for educating all students and that it’s up to parents of kids with special needs to come up with the money for unfunded costs to get their kids an adequate education. That’s just wrong. Every student has a right to an education that enables them to meet their full potential—in public school.

      A better approach is to fully fund the actual costs of providing all students with special needs with the services and support they need to succeed in public schools and to hold our public schools accountable for doing it. Subsidizing specialized private schools is like subsidizing private medical clinics that charge additional fees: it’s a slippery slope that takes pressure off the public system to meet the needs of all.

      1. Most private school parents aren’t rich—only some of them are. So what? If you think private school is worth paying for, then pay the full cost and don’t ask taxpayers to subsidize it. If you don’t want to, then do the smart thing: send your kid to your local public school and save yourself some money.
      2. My child was bullied in public school so we switched to private school. Bullying is a real and awful thing but I’ve heard the same from families who are leaving private school to go into the public system, due to bullying at private school. As a trustee, I always advised parents to try to work with their school to address and resolve bullying issues.

      What would B.C. schools be like if Christy had had to send her son to public school?

      I love this Warren Buffett quote: It’s easy to solve the problems of public education in America. All you have to do is outlaw private schools and assign every child to public school by lottery.” Hear hear.

      The problem with private schools is that those with clout, connections, and cash have an out, and that takes a lot of pressure off politicians to ensure public schools are adequately funded and well run. If our former premier had been required to send her son to a public school that was randomly assigned, I’d bet my nonexistent school-trustee pension that our public schools would be in way better shape than they are now. If her powerful associates and financial backers had to as well, we’d have seismically safe public schools with thriving academic, fine-arts, athletics, and special-education programs and fully stocked libraries in every school in every B.C. community.

      Bercic’s motion doesn’t go far enough for me

      Bercic’s motion to stop funding the expensive group of schools is a good start, although I’d prefer a phase-out of funding for all nonpublic schools and that $400 million put back into public schools.

      I’d also have a go at some of the generous tax deductions and exemptions available to private schools and parents as well, since those reduce the tax revenue available to support public schools.

      It will be interesting to see if Bercic can rally enough votes around the VSB table to get the motion passed. I suspect the three Vision Vancouver trustees will support it, but I doubt the two Non-Partisan Association trustees will like it, and the three Greens tend to be unpredictable on stuff like this. It could be an important message, but it might not make much of a difference, regardless of the outcome.

      I’d be surprised, unfortunately, to see the government make any moves to cut funding for the Group 1 schools, although they may signal an eventual phase-out for the more expensive and exclusive Group 2 schools. I hope they do. I suspect there’s strong public support for stopping funding for all private schools, and especially the elite ones, but it’s tricky territory for politicians. It’s doubtful that cutting funding for them will win them much new support in the next election, but cutting funding, or even threatening to, could be enough to mobilize groups that gravitate to private or faith-based schools to organize to vote them out of office next time we go to the polls. In B.C., private schools are a well-organized lobby group that view a threat to some as a threat to all, and they know how to make politicians feel the heat.

      It’s not just an issue in more affluent ridings, either. Consider, for example, Adrian Dix’s East Vancouver riding, which is home to a significant number of working-class Filipino-Canadian families who send their kids to Catholic schools. Dix isn’t going to want to alienate a group that gives him a lot of support by threatening to pull funding for their schools. Then there’s the large Khalsa School in Surrey that receives almost $7 million a year in government funding. The NDP picked up a few key seats there in the last election that they need to hang on to, and they’re not going to want to risk those by pulling funding for a huge, popular faith-based private school.

      Sometimes the right thing to do is different from the politically strategic thing. I’m hoping for the former, although I’m betting on the latter.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.