By Janet Keeping
Private schools in Alberta receive 70% of the per-pupil grant given to public schools in the province. The Alberta School Board Association (ASBA) recently called for the end of this public funding to private schools. This is a very good idea.
The ASBA makes a financial case for reallocating the money currently spent on private schools to the public system arguing that scarce resources would be better spent on the school system that is open to all children. But this is not the best justification for the policy change. If the termination of public funding led to the closure of any private schools – and while some would assuredly remain open, some probably would not – then more money might have to be spent on the public system to accommodate the greater number of students served by it.
But ending public financing of private schools is the right way to go regardless, because public funding for private schools undermines the very purpose of having a public education system.
By definition public money should only be spent to advance public policy objectives. The public policy objective in running an education system is to ensure that children receive the education they need for self-development and to enable them to make a contribution to the economy through their work and to grow into citizens capable of fulfilling their civic obligations to each other and to the community as a whole.
But why not just require parents to have their children educated, one way or the other? Why maintain an education system with public funds? One answer is that not all parents would or (financially) could provide for their children’s education were the state not to provide schools. However, there is a deeper purpose served by a publicly constituted and operated system – one connected with the strength of our democracy and the humanity of our society. This is to ensure that children grow and learn together with others different from themselves, that children learn how to understand, respect and deal with people from different backgrounds before they take on the responsibilities of adulthood. We need public education to nurture a sense of community rich enough to keep our democracy healthy.
In no country is this function of public education more important than here in Canada where we have one of the most diverse populations in the world. Learning to appreciate, live with and make decisions together with others from very different backgrounds – perhaps most importantly, with children from families of very different degrees of poverty or wealth – is essential to keeping our society functioning in a sympathetically democratic way. This is accomplished in large part through a public education system.
Private schools on the other hand segregate children along lines that inhibit the development of that democratic sympathy, for example, along religious, gender, cultural and wealth lines. The most egregious religious segregation flows from the existence of our separate (Catholic) school system. But ending separate schools would require a change to Alberta’s constitution. So that particular reform has to be the subject of a different discussion.
Even if the public funding of private schools were to end, there would have to be exceptions for schools that serve the special needs of learning-disabled children for whom the public system does not have appropriate resources. And the choice to put your child in a private school or to home-school should remain: there has to be a “way out” for families who firmly believe their children do not belong in the public schools. But public funding for private schools, other than those needed for pedagogical reasons, encourages the existence of those schools and draws students away from the public system.
Funding for private schools should be ended gradually so as to give those schools, and the families and the children they currently serve, time to adjust. It could be phased out, for example, over a seven-year period, with funding reduced from 70% to 60% in the first year, 60% to 50% in the second year, and so on, until funding has been eliminated. But there may be other, better formulae for accomplishing the same.
The fact that ending the public funding for private schools might result in more money having to be spent on the public system is not an answer to the call for this change in public policy. We could save money in many dangerous ways – for example, holding elections is expensive, but doing away with them is out of the question.
Public education is an essential ingredient to successful, modern societies. Undermining that education system by spending our collective resources on private schools is self-defeating and Albertans should demand the present policy be ended.
This opinion piece was first posted on Troy Media’s website at http://www.troymedia.com/2013/11/28/public-funding-for-private-schools-has-to-end/