Monday, February 25, 2013

Private schools, public money

This morning, in Metro, the free newspaper that they hand you when you go into the subway station, there was a full page ad for Québec's private schools. These schools, which are currently generously supported with public money, are worried that the new Parti Québecois government may cut their grants, and they are trying to get out in front of this possibility by mobilizing public opinion. Currently, Québec provides over $1 billion per year in funding to private schools, and students in these schools receive approximately 60% of the per-pupil funding given to private schools.

In order to convince Québec taxpayers to continue to fork out more to those who have more, the Federation of Québec Private Schools has offered us five "truths" about the public system.
For those of you who don't read French, let's take a look at each of these "truths" in turn, and offer a bit of commentary on each one:

1. Private schools are non-profit organizations that function in the same way as daycare centers and colleges. The vast majority of these establishments belong to the community.

The first sentence here is true only in a limited technical sense. Yes, private schools are largely non-profit organizations (and thus have a surface similarity to other non-profits like universities), but this doesn't exactly make them open to or accountable to the general public. One could, for example, form a non-profit to promote the sport of polo in Montreal or to lobby for lower taxes for the rich. The bottom line is that the fact that an organization is non-profit does not mean that it works in the public interest.

2. Publicly supported private schools welcome students from a variety of socioeconomic milieux, with the vast majority coming from the middle class. More and more schools are offering financial support to help families access their services.

No evidence is presented for the scale of this "more and more financial support" that is being offered, but, for the sake of argument, let's take it on faith that the private schools are doing this. The fact remains that Québec's current regime of school financing is a massive giveaway to the rich and the middle class. Of course, the "vast majority" of students in Québec private schools come from the middle class--given the fact that almost 20% of Québec secondary school students attend a private school, where else are they going to come from? Notwithstanding this, you can be sure that a significant proportion of the rich parents of this province are availing themselves of Québec's Cadillac-style subsidies for private schooling.

3. The majority of private schools don't select students on an the basis of their grades. For the most part, ability tests are a tool which is used to better understand each student in order to best respond to their individual needs.

While it is true that private schools are not simply for students of high academic ability, this truth masks the fact that the Québec system relegates problem students to the public system. With some exceptions in the case of specialized schools, it is not in the interest of private schools to take students with substantial academic and/or behavioral problems, and their generous regime of subsidies allows them to take the students with the most academic and social capital.

4. The private school is autonomous. It chooses its own staff and takes care of its own buildings. This permits it to adapt to the needs of its clientele rapidly.

The subtext of this truth may be that the private schools are able to fire bad teachers and to build and maintain new buildings outside the confines of Québec public sector corruption. This is a significant advantage for the private system, although it also highlights some problems within the public system that need to be addressed.

5. The private school is linked with parents through a contract to deliver educational services. This model favors a collaboration between the school, the student, and their parents, a guarantee of perseverance and success.

Private schools are indeed accountable to parents (they do not want to lose the tuition dollars, after all), but public schools often do a reasonable job of this as well. Although there are undoubtedly some public schools that are not responsive to parental concerns, the majority of public school teachers and administrators try to do their best for students.

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