Opinion

Want to Pull the Plug on Tax-Supported BC Private Schools? Not So Fast

But boosting funding for the public system will reap rewards.

By Crawford Kilian 8 Nov 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Forty years ago, then-premier Bill Bennett renounced one of his father’s wisest principles.

His father W.A.C. Bennett, the Kelowna hardware merchant who transformed the province in the mid-20th century, had been no fan of public education. He dragged his heels through the early years of the 1950s baby boom, building as few new schools as he could. Kids were going to school in morning and afternoon shifts. But he knew political pressure when he felt it, and that’s why we have Simon Fraser University, UVic, and a community college/university system.

On principle, Wacky Bennett wasn’t going to spend taxpayers’ dollars on private schools. If his schools weren’t good enough for your precious kids, you could bloody well pay for something else. I suspect the old wizard knew he’d win working-class votes with that policy.

By the time his son Bill restored Social Credit to power in 1975, B.C.’s working class was already losing strength whether it realized it or not. Dave Barrett’s NDP barbarians had been driven out of the gates. Unions were weakening while managers gained strength. Public education as a catapult for working-class social mobility was growing obsolete.

So in 1977 Bill Bennett broke away from his father’s policy by providing taxpayer subsidies to private schools, whether secular or religious. (They call themselves “independent,” but they depend very heavily on those tax subsidies.)

Everyone recognized that it was a bribe to voters too rich or religious to let their kids learn in the public system, where they would have to deal with poor kids and unbelievers and all those left-leaning radical teachers.

When a bribe is a bargain

In hindsight, it was a political bargain: in 1978-79, funding was just $9.4 million ($30.2 million in 2017 dollars) for 17,821 pupils. The rich and religious took the bribe, voted Socred and then Liberal, and never looked back — least of all at a public system that was being systematically deprived of the funding and political support it needed.

Meanwhile, more private schools opened to meet the demand from families that could now afford to enrol their kids. By 2012, according to the Federation of Independent Schools Associations, B.C. taxpayers were paying $245.3 million to support 66,152 pupils.

These schools’ tax support is based on two key factors: how closely they follow the provincial curriculum, and the per-pupil operating grant in the local school district. Four out of five schools qualify for the maximum 50 per cent, and most of the rest get 35 per cent. Only three per cent get no grant at all.

Since some districts have very high operating costs, per-pupil grants for private schools in those districts are also high: in Central Coast, for example, the private-school per-pupil grant is $24,035 and in Haida Gwaii it’s $17,606. In North Vancouver, by comparison, it’s $7,798 and in Vancouver it’s $8,058.

As The Tyee’s Katie Hyslop noted in a recent article, increased funding for the public schools for 2017-18 also boosted grants to the private schools — to $383,200,000.

Many British Columbians would still side with W.A.C. Bennett and allocate all tax funds to the public system. But after 40 years, that would be politically hazardous.

Predictable consequences of pulling the plug

Suppose the Horgan NDP government decided to pull the plug and transfer next year’s private-school grants to the local public districts. Parents with kids in private schools would loudly protest, and turn out the next election day to kick the NDP rascals out of office. The Fraser Institute and other right-wing groups would invoke the right to choice and mention the success of private-school students on the Fraser Institute school rankings. They would reframe the public schools as “government schools.”

The media would soon fill with sad stories of private schools forced to close, public schools needing yet more portable classrooms to handle their new pupils, and school boards clamouring for yet more money to build new schools and expand programs.

Worse yet, the public schools would need even more per-capita money to provide former private-school pupils with the same funding as their classmates.

Finding classrooms and teachers would be a nightmare for school boards; they might need still more money to buy some of the former private schools and hire their former teachers. The private schools raise their own money for capital expenses like land and buildings, so purchasing such schools would be understandably costly.

Survival of the richest

The top secular private schools would survive even if they had to greatly increase their fees. (St. George’s School yearly tuition for B.C. resident senior school students is currently $23,985.) But parents who could afford those fees could also afford to pour every legal penny into the Liberals’ coffers to prepare for the next election.

Meanwhile some religious schools would also survive, but not all; some Jewish and Muslim schools might have to close, creating still more anti-NDP families, and Catholic families would not forget the extra expense of schooling their children under the NDP.

Philosophically, taxpayer support for private schools is as unacceptable as W.A.C. Bennett thought. Politically, however, it’s unavoidable. Bill Bennett’s 1977 bribe created an interest group, and a very prosperous and influential one.

That interest group is also deeply uninterested in the society that has made it prosperous. In the early 1980s, when I wrote School Wars, I had a sense of a division between right-wing “schismatics” who wanted to seal themselves off from the poor and the merely middle class, and the centre-left “ecumenicals” who saw public education as a way for their kids to meet all the people they would be living and working with for the rest of their lives.

Segregation by class and religion

Since then, income gaps have grown wider and the schismatics have increasingly sealed themselves off in gated communities. We no longer have racial segregation, but class segregation is thriving and religious segregation is growing. Middle-class parents, anxious for their kids to achieve some kind of social mobility, sacrifice to send them to private schools where a classmate might be a vital contact enabling them to enter some future gated community.

B.C.’s subsidies to private schools are still a small part of the education budget: according to the 2017 education ministry service plan, B.C. public schools will get an estimated $5.3 billion in operating expenses while private schools get $381.2 million — just over 7 per cent. So pulling the private-school funding and putting it into public schools wouldn’t likely produce dramatic improvement in those schools. But it would produce a lot of political grief for any government that tried it.

In effect, Bill Bennett outsourced part of public education to the private sector, and we are unlikely to see a change. It doesn’t matter that B.C.’s public schools compare favourably with Finland’s. The point of the private schools is to be the gatekeepers for communities of upper-class or religious groups who don’t much want to mingle with the rest of us.

About the time Bill Bennett was in power, Finland (with about the population of B.C.) decided as a country that it needed all hands on deck if it was to compete in a global economy. Patiently, over decades, Finland transformed its education system to ensure every kid, rich or poor, would enter the economy as a skilled and resourceful person. Results on the FISA tests since 2000 showed the Finns were wise as well as smart. (And they stole a lot of their ideas from B.C. and Alberta schools.)

Meanwhile, we paid class and religious segregationists to build their own little worlds at our own children’s expense. Their kids might prosper and get a little closer to the one per cent, while our kids moved back home after graduation so they could afford to be baristas or interns, or to go back to school yet again for another scrap of paper.

This isn’t the way it was 60 years ago, when a nobody teenager like me could find himself in an Ivy League university and then enjoy a 40-year career in a single, very rewarding teaching job — a job where I tried to show my students how to do as well as I had, just when it was becoming increasingly impossible.

I do see one possibility of change. Suppose the government decoupled private-school funding from the public system. Leave those schools at 2017 funding levels while pouring more money into training for public-school teachers. You need a master’s degree just to teach kindergarten in Finland, and its public schools are swarming with PhD’s. Finnish parents know their kids are in professional hands they can trust.

Faced with that kind of competition, the private system would see students defecting to the public schools. Private-school fees would have to soar to cover the cost of improved teacher qualifications. That would drive still more families back to a public system that looked better and better.

B.C.’s right wing trash-talked our public schools for decades, and a lot of us took that trash for truth. Show the world how really good our schools are, and the private system will have to come up with something better than kilts and blazers.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, BC Politics

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