Patti Bacchus: Why government should stop funding posh private schools, but won’t

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      I drove along Imperial Drive, a lovely, wooded stretch of road by the Camosun Bog that connects Vancouver’s West Point Grey and Dunbar neighbourhoods, on a recent weekday morning, just after eight. I won’t make that mistake again.

      On the Dunbar side, Imperial turns into West 29th Avenue. On weekday mornings, it’s clogged with high-end, luxury cars dropping off uniformed boys at the country-club-like St. George’s private school campus, with its sweeping lawns and five-star facilities. It’s an infuriating reminder of what our tax dollars are subsidizing, while public school boards struggle to patch leaking roofs and buy up-to-date textbooks.

      I don’t need another reason to grind my teeth while my blood pressure goes through the roof, and neither do you. Take an alternate route. You’re welcome.

      I’ve heard tales of grand pianos gracing the halls of St. George’s, while the Vancouver school board’s elementary band and strings programs were cut from the budget by a government-appointed trustee in the fall of 2016, and haven’t been restored since, due to a lack of funding.

      It infuriates me to think we’re subsidizing exclusive private schools that also charge hefty tuition fees and give out tax receipts to wealthy donors, while public schools struggle to pay for such luxuries as washroom repairs, heat, and basic learning resources.

      If you thought an NDP government would put a stop to this outrage, you’re wrong.

      Four in five British Columbians oppose public funds going to elite private schools

      I’ve been a bit of a broken record on the topic of public funds going to private schools, and it turns out a lot of people agree with me.

      An Insights West poll conducted on behalf of a public-education advocacy group called the Institute for Public Education-British Columbia, and the First Call-B.C. Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition, with financial support from the Lochmaddy Foundation, was released this week and found 78 percent of British Columbians polled oppose public funding for elite private schools, with 60 percent saying they’re strongly opposed.

      Almost 70 percent also oppose public funding going to faith-based, religious schools and two-thirds are against public funding for all nonreligious private schools. A strong majority polled—73 percent—also opposes property-tax exemptions that are currently enjoyed by B.C. private schools.

      These results are consistent with previous polling I’ve seen on this topic.

      So why does the NDP government keep giving what adds up to hundreds of millions of dollars a year to private schools, when voters are so overwhelmingly opposed? Pull up a chair, while Auntie Patti explains.

      Public money for private schools is bad policy but good politics

      Although an overwhelming majority of British Columbians don’t want their tax dollars subsidizing private schools, it’s a topic governments, including NDP governments, would rather not discuss.

      When I asked to speak to Education Minister Rob Fleming by phone this week, his staff told me he wasn’t available and would be travelling (presumably somewhere without phone service). That was disappointing, but not surprising. It’s hard to defend the indefensible.

      Fleming’s ministry staff offered to email me a statement I could attribute to him, but I declined, as the Georgia Straight has an editorial policy against using emailed statements from political staffers, in lieu of elected officials actually responding to interview requests. It’s a good policy that all news media outlets should adopt.

      Giving public funding to private schools, and especially to expensive elite ones, is terrible public policy, especially if you consider yourself a political progressive, which I assume Fleming does.

      On the other hand, taking public subsidies away from private schools, whether they be faith-based, exclusive and expensive university prep schools, or schools that specialize in educating students with learning disabilities or other special needs, is a dangerous political move. 

      Therein lies the NDP’s dislike for wading into the private-school funding debate, and may explain why Fleming wasn’t available for a 10-minute phone call at any point this entire week.

      That’s because although most voters don’t want their taxes going to private schools, it’s unlikely to be the issue that makes them decide which party to vote for on Election Day. In other words, public funding for private schools annoys people and they’re opposed to it, but it’s seldom anyone’s “ballot-box” issue, and politicians and their strategists know it.

      Taking public funding away from any or all private schools, whether they be elite prep schools like St. George’s or more modest faith-based schools, would get the fierce private-school lobby group riled up. They’d mobilize blocs of voters for whoever it would be a ballot-box issue, and not in a good way, for whomever tries to take away their public subsidies.

      It’s one thing to tick off wealthy parents who send their kids to expensive, elite schools and who are unlikely to ever vote NDP, but it’s another to anger those who send their kids to Catholic, Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Sikh schools, or any number of other faith-based or secular private schools.

      The Vancouver-Kingsway riding, for example, which is held by Health Minister Adrian Dix, is home to many Filipino Canadians who send their kids to Catholic school, and are often NDP supporters. I can’t imagine Dix wanting to tell them they’re going to have to pay a lot more to keep sending their kids to schools like St. Mary’s on Joyce Street.

      Fleming also has a private Catholic school in his constituency of Victoria–Swan Lake, and I doubt he wants to upset its students’ parents, who likely support him now.

      And let’s not forget about Surrey, which was a key political battleground in the last provincial election. Remember the sudden removal of the Port Mann bridge tolls? That was all about winning those precious seats in Surrey, which is also home to the large, private Khalsa school that has more than 2,000 students. It’s hard to imagine a party taking a chance on angering all those the families, by taking away their public subsidy for their faith-based school, if they want to hang on to Surrey seats on election day.

      Need half a billion dollars to invest in public schools? Look no further

      Political peril aside, my advice to the Horgan NDP government is to consider a phased approach to redirecting private-school funding into the public system, starting with elite, expensive schools, which often exclude students with special needs and require students to write entrance exams and demonstrate their ability to learn to a level that will get them into prestigious universities.

      Goodness knows public schools need a lot more funding to make up for all they lost under the B.C. Liberal government, and they could sure use the public money being given to private schools that educate the children of some of B.C.’s wealthiest families.

      But you can be sure that if they do, the Federation of Independent Schools Association (FISABC), which lobbies on behalf of B.C.’s private schools, will raise the alarm with a fierce response, screaming that an attack on any private school’s funding is an attack on all of them.

      If the Horgan government had the courage to do the right thing, instead of the savvy political thing, it could eventually free up hundreds of millions of dollars that could be invested in public schools, so we could ensure all students’ learning needs are met, regardless of parents’ ability to pay.

      I’m not holding my breath though—it would be a political risk the government may not be able to afford taking, if it wants a second term. Any change to private school funding would be a gift to the B.C. Liberals, who’ve been flailing about, trying to find something credible to criticize the Horgan government for, and for the most part failing and sounding kind of wacky.

      The Liberals would go to town on any change to private-school funding as an attack on parent choice, and it could be an issue that gives them the advantage they need to win a majority of seats in the next election.

      What these poll results should do, at the very least, is to raise public awareness about how much taxpayers are subsidizing private schools and put pressure on the Horgan government to ensure public schools get the funding they need to ensure all public-school students get the same opportunities and supports the private-school kids get.

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

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