Patti Bacchus: Private schools are no bargain for taxpayers

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      “Yeah, but private schools save taxpayers money.”

      I heard that several times last week after I wrote about the need to privatize private schools by taking away their public subsidies. I’d commented on the appalling case of a teacher who was forced to leave her teaching job at the Surrey Christian School because she was living with her male partner without being married to him. I called for an end to public funding going to private schools, especially those that don’t comply with human-rights legislation that protects employees from discrimination based on marital status, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

      The argument I heard to keep funding them is that private-school parents pay at least half or more of the cost of running their kids’ schools while public-school parents pay nothing at all. Some claim private-school parents are the ones providing the subsidies. Others point out that private schools don’t get funding for capital costs. And that’s supposed to be a good deal for the rest of us. But it isn’t.

      It’s only part of a more complicated picture. If you dig a little deeper, you’ll discover private schools aren’t much of a bargain for taxpayers at all.

      To recap some of what I went over last week, elite private schools that spend more per student than public schools do generally receive 35 percent as much government funding per student as public schools, while faith-based schools and others that spend about the same, or less, per students than public schools get 50 percent of what public schools get.

      But that’s not all. As nonprofits, private schools can issue tax receipts so donors can claim tax deductions, which diverts money from the provincial treasury.  Schools like Vancouver’s exclusive St. George’s—where former B.C. premier Christy Clark sent her son, as did David Sidoo, who was arrested last week (March 8) and charged in the recent college-admissions scandal—have been known to rack up tens of millions in tax-deductible donations per year, which makes them a perverse sort of charity for children of the rich. Even less expensive Catholic schools, like Vancouver’s Little Flower Academy, can collect hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in tax-deductible donations.

      Publicly funded religious schools can also issue tax receipts for a portion of tuition fees, which parents can also use to reduce the amount of income tax they pay. Private-school parents can also claim a child-care tax deduction for supervision at recess and lunch for students up to 16 years old, taking advantage of a credit intended to offset the costs of daycare for working parents.

      In many cases, parents of students with special needs who send their kids to specialized, expensive private schools can claim their hefty tuition fees as medical deductions and set up health-care trusts to reduce their taxes, resulting in less tax revenue flowing into the public treasury.

      Those lush private-school grounds are exempt from property taxes

      I live on the West Side of Vancouver and often find myself driving by the lush, manicured grounds of some expensive private schools. Some of them are expansive and country-club-like and stand in marked contrast to the boggy fields at nearby public schools. Thanks to the B.C. Liberals and 2015 legislation they brought in, those schools enjoy an exemption from paying property tax, even in nonschool portions of their campuses. You and I should be so lucky.

      Private schools operated without public funding for decades

      People who argue that private schools are a great deal for taxpayers—and that taking public funding away would cost us all more if we had to pay the full education cost of all those students if they stampeded into the public system—ignore the fact that private schools were around long before they started getting public funding in 1977. My parents sent me to one in the early 1970s, and it had been in operation since late 1898 and didn’t seem to have any trouble finding parents willing to foot the whole tuition bill without help from taxpayers. I suspect it will be around for a long time to come, with or without the public subsidies it now enjoys.

      That argument also fails to factor in basic economic truths, like economies of scale. In the Vancouver school district, there are, apparently, thousands of empty seats, which periodically raises public debate over whether the Vancouver school board (VSB) should close schools. Absorbing a few hundred, or even a few thousand, private-school students who are well supported at home and less likely to have learning challenges than those in the public-school population, would likely cost a lot less per student than one might expect. Perhaps even less than it costs to subsidize their private schools.

      If they want to be called independent schools, then stop depending on public subsidies and tax breaks

      I refer to schools that aren’t public as private schools but government and the schools themselves prefer the term “independent”. I’ll start referring to them as that when they stop relying on the public’s money to operate. You want to be called independent? Then be independent and fund it yourselves.

      As for the argument that private-school parents are taxpayers too, well so am I and I don’t even have kids in schools. I’m happy to pay for a vibrant public-education system that provides equitable opportunities for all kids. I’m delighted when my taxes go to things that serve the public good, like public schools and public health care. What I don’t want my money going to is schools that discriminate against anyone in any way, whether it be over marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, the ability to pay steep fees, or simply ability.

      That’s right: ability. I don’t want a dime of my money going to schools that discriminate against students with special learning needs. St. Georges makes no bones about who it doesn’t want. It notes on its website: “When considering the application of any student, the school will assess whether or not the student is the right fit for the school and the school is the right fit for the student, keeping in mind the over-arching goal of the school to prepare students for admission to a post-secondary institution. Factors that are considered in this assessment include…the student's demonstrated educational potential…”

      Public schools take all comers, including those who may not be destined for university. They struggle to meet all students’ needs because they don’t have the kind of money private schools have to provide the best learning conditions for all. Taking the hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars that go to private schools each year—and closing the tax loopholes that divert even more from the public treasury to private-school coffers—could go a long way to ensuring that all public-school students have their needs met.

      Speaking of special needs, I often hear the argument that parents have no choice other than to put their kids into private schools that specialize in special education because public schools don’t provide enough support. I sympathize with parents who face that difficult decision. It’s horrible to watch a child slip through the many cracks in the public system, and I don’t blame desperate parents for seeking alternatives. I know many do so by making financial sacrifices. Schools that cater to students with special needs generally charge steep tuition fees, despite also getting public subsidies. That’s because it’s expensive to provide the kind of class sizes and specialized support that some students need to reach their full potential.

      It makes no sense to me, however, to be publicly subsidizing those who can manage to scrape together $25,000 in annual tuition while that remains an impossible dream for so many others with children who have special needs and who struggle to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. Put the money back into public schools and make sure all kids’ needs are met and everyone gets a chance to succeed.

      The NDP government doesn’t want to talk about this issue because they don’t want to lose the private-school vote—and, in particular, the religious-school vote. They’ll dismiss calls to stop funding private schools by mumbling something about it saving taxpayers money and giving parents choice. Well, this taxpayer doesn’t buy that and I don’t want any of my money going to private schools, period. Parent would still have the choice to send their kids to private schools as long as they were willing to pay for it. I’d like my choice to stop subsidizing them to be respected, thank you very much.

      The hundreds of millions of dollars that could be redirected into public school budgets would go a long way to making sure all kids get the educational opportunities and supports they need.  If you feel the same, let your MLA, the premier, and Education Minister Rob Fleming know it.

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