Charles Ungerleider, Professor Emeritus, The University of British Columbia
[permission to reproduce granted if authorship is acknowledged]
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos sparked outrage when she funneled COVID-19 relief funding intended for public institutions to private and religious schools. DeVos gave a broad interpretation (policy guidance) to the relief bill that, by the time you read this, will likely have been narrowed through Congressional action and public pressure.
For nearly fifty years, British Columbians have been subsidizing private and religious schools as a matter of public policy, but to date there has been no public objection. British Columbia is not alone. Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Quebec have policies to provide funding to private schools as a matter of policy.
Policy is the mechanism democratic societies use to allocate scarce public resources. If the resource supply were unlimited, you would have no need for policy; you could just drop by and take what you want. By setting public policy, our elected officials make difficult choices about how our scarce resources will be spent on health care, education, housing, sanitation, water, etc. Not all resource allocation decisions are well considered, but once decided they are often hard to reverse.
Since the late 1970s, British Columbia has been subsidizing the education of students whose parents prefer that they be educated in private schools. Today, the subsidies amount to more than $300,000,000 per year. It is not the amount of money to which I object, though the amount is not trivial. I object to my taxes paying for memberships to private clubs to which access is restricted.
Private schools in British Columbia call themselves independent schools. They are independent only in the sense that they can choose who does and does not attend. Public schools are open to everyone.
Subsidies to parents whose children attend private schools are inequitable. According to Statistics Canada, when private school students are compared with their public-school peers, they are more likely to live in families with two biological parents whose higher income affords such advantages as more computers and books in the home.
The public policy question is: Do we (all citizens) want our scarce tax dollars paying for something available only to a specific group? I think not.
Private schools in British Columbia work to defend their subsidized status by fueling public concern about the increased cost that will be incurred if the students in private school returned to public schools. That is like a private golf club arguing that, if it is not subsidized, it will close and all its members will go to the public golf course, making it more difficult to get a tee-time and more expensive to maintain the greens.
Private school advocates often frame the issue as one of parental choice about the education their children receive. Parents are certainly free to choose private schools, but they should not be free to use my taxes or yours to subsidize their choices.
Let me put it another way: There is a perfectly good tennis court at the publicly funded community centre near my home. But if I would prefer to play at a private tennis club would you help pay for my membership in that private tennis club?
I didn’t think so.
Reversing the 40 year old subsidy policy will take strong political will to withstand the inevitable and intense lobbying by private schools and their supporters. However, a reasoned and thoughtful campaign in favour of the change by supporters of public schools should be able to sway public sentiment.
I think it is time that we stopped subsidizing the private club memberships for a small, relatively more advantaged, segment of the population.