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Regaining Respect for Education

Time to revisit and rethink just why we are subsidizing private schools.

Crawford Kilian 7 Jun

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee. Find his previous Tyee articles here.

As the conflict drags on between B.C. teachers and the government, it's brought out other conflicts: the competition for funds between the public and independent schools, and the political conflict between two visions of society.

Some public school supporters call for moving the subsidy to independent schools back to the public system. And it's a logical position. Historically, taxpayers paid only for the public schools. Socred patriarch W.A.C. Bennett was adamant that if parents didn't like the public system, they could pay the whole shot for schools more to their liking.

It was Bennett's son Bill who created the subsidies that made the private schools "independent." It was seen then as a straight political bribe, but it's now as entrenched as the Agricultural Land Reserve (probably more).

Our two-tier school system also reflects B.C.'s conflicted attitude toward education. Until we change that attitude, little else will change.

As a thought experiment, though, let's consider pulling public support from the independent schools and letting those schools fend for themselves again.

According to the Federation of Independent School Associations, about 74,000 kids are in the independent system now, compared to 514,000 in the public schools. Some families would sacrifice to keep their kids in independent schools, but it would be financially impossible for many. Without the $245 million that helps support them (at the average rate of $3,310 per student), some independent schools would simply have to close or merge.

In theory, the public-school population would simply grow back toward its late-1990s level, which peaked in 1997-98 at 615,000. In practice, many school districts would have nowhere to put a sudden increase in students; many school facilities have been closed, sold or repurposed. So an influx of students might look like a return to the 1950s, when the first baby boomers went to school in shifts.

And what about the teachers in the independent schools? Many, but not all, are qualified to teach in the public system. Would they migrate into the B.C. Teachers' Federation, and would they bring their seniority with them? Neither they nor the BCTF would welcome such a merger except on carefully negotiated terms. Nor would school boards enjoy suddenly having to meet much bigger teacher payrolls.

Awkward demands on schools

Many independent schools have a strong religious foundation, whether Evangelical, Catholic, Jewish, Sikh or Muslim. Some of those schools would survive, but others would not; their pupils would have to enter the public system. Religious students certainly thrive in the public schools, but the new kids by definition would be from families that don't like or trust those schools. They might well make awkward demands: time for prayers in a reserved space, or refusal to be vaccinated, or dietary requirements that would be hard to satisfy.

Even the emigres from secular independent schools could be a problem. Their parents would themselves tend to be well educated and concerned about standards. They could well put pressure on local principals, parent advisory councils, and school boards for more and better programs -- even if Victoria refused to spend another dime on education.

So going back to 1977 would only create more problems: unemployed teachers, resentful parents, confused students. The amount of money diverted into the public schools would be poor compensation: $245 million, according to the Federation of Independent School Associations, when the public schools' operating grants are already $4.73 billion.

A deeper problem

A deeper problem hides in this squabble over funding: some of us don't really like the idea of a secular, egalitarian and democratic society. These alienated citizens like subsidies for themselves, but they hate paying to support their fellow-citizens -- even if that support saves them money in the long run.

Almost 30 years ago in a book called School Wars: The Assault on B.C. Education, I called such people "schismatics." They ultimately don't believe in the world and country the rest of us live in. Having split from us emotionally and ideologically, they still have the gall to demand our support. After all, we're extorting tax dollars from them to subsidize people and activities they don't approve of.

Some schismatics object to paying school taxes when they have no children in the schools. But public education is not a subsidy to parents, or a baby-sitting service. It's a public obligation to citizens who are still children or young adults. It's supposed to equip them to help run a 21st-century democracy, alongside their classmates and the rest of us.

Whether secular or religious, the independent schools don't accept that premise. The high cost secular schools are a service to the families who believe they deserve to run Canada and want their children to run it after them. They're willing to pay a lot, but they welcome any subsidies their government friends can provide. The religious schools believe Canada is negligible compared to the next world, and they want their children safely in heaven. They too welcome subsidies, even from unbelievers.

The rest of us can legitimately question whether we really need to pay for the schooling of our future masters, or to relieve religious anxieties that we do not share.

Schismatics vs. ecumenicals

In my book School Wars I posed the schismatics against the "ecumenicals" -- people who acknowledge their differences and try to find common ground where they can help one another to learn and benefit from those differences.

That's us. Whatever our income or religion, we are very much the majority. We may roll our eyes at one another's failings, starting in our own families, but we put up with those failings as others put up with ours.

More importantly, we try to remedy those failings, especially by our democratic decisions on how to educate ourselves and our kids. Despite our school wars, our public schools are the envy of most of the world and with good reason.

So if we're the majority, why are we subsidizing people who don't approve of us and our schools?

Bill Bennett's gift to the private-school schismatics was in 1977, near the end of the postwar golden age of working-class prosperity. A few years later we were into the age of Reagan and Thatcher and the rapidly widening income gap. Thatcher famously said, "There is no such thing as society," declaring a Hobbesian war of all against all. Incomes began to stagnate while the Thatcherites framed the very concept of taxes as robbery.

Fighting to stay on the same rung of the ladder

Now it was up to every family to look after its own and ensure that its kids at least stayed on the same rung of the social ladder. The status symbols of success began to include the best school leading to the best university leading to the best career track.

More or less simultaneously, fundamentalist forms of religion began to strengthen, with the parallel belief that the best faith-based school would lead to the best heaven.

North America's public schools had enjoyed a century of success from about 1880 to 1980: they taught and assimilated millions of immigrant children from around the world. Education was the path to a better life, and teachers, however poorly paid, enjoyed a degree of social respect.

That social respect has largely vanished since Bennett, Reagan and Thatcher. Education has been reduced to a babysitting service and a consumer good. Far from being a path to a better life, it's a path to more education followed by underemployment. From kindergarten to university, schools are ranked liked consumer reports judging this year's cars. We gain and maintain our social status in part by where we went to school.

Regaining social respect for education

If the independent schools are to have a truly social purpose, as opposed to offering merely private salvation in this world or the next, we will need to regain that general social respect for education itself, public or private.

We might begin by opening negotiations with the independent schools on new reasons to support them. Let the religious schools charge their own faithful for religious indoctrination, while welcoming everyone for a distinctive approach to the common curriculum. Let the secular schools ditch their kilts and blazers and specialize in radical approaches to that curriculum, or in teaching special-needs students.

We need not worry about losing the trappings of such schools. Over 40 years ago, the great Canadian scholar and educator Northrop Frye wisely observed: "It seems to me that if there is a general social respect for education, any educational system will work. If there is not, no educational system will work."

By all means let parents do what they can to advance their children's education and future prospects, whether with piano lessons, religious instruction, or a European grand tour.

But let them do it on their own time, and with their own funds. The rest of us, trapped in stagnant incomes for 40 years, can't afford such subsidies anymore.  [Tyee]

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