British Columbia struggles with an age-old issue
During the election campaign for school trustee in late 2014, I was asked what I thought about government funding for private schools. The answer I gave was both political and frank. Yes, I said diverting increasing amounts of public funds to privately funded or independent schools was something that warranted our attention and review, but at the same time I recognized the need for a society to support what I would term ‘denominational’ schools. I was not sure if I managed to address that particular question, but I do think my response covered the complexity of the issue.
My answer was partly rooted in my Dutch background. In 1848 the right to education, any education, was enshrined in the constitution of The Netherlands by an at the time classical liberal government. It sought to ensure not only freedom to education, but also to settle the religious conflict that had defined the nation from its early days when its Protestant elites rebelled against the Catholic monarch in the late 16th century. Tensions between Protestants and Catholics remained fairly potent well into the 20th century, not to mention the eventual fracturing of the Protestant church into various sub-groups with their own agendas.
In simple terms the education system that evolved in The Netherlands over time was one where any group, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Humanist or any set of beliefs could form a school, as long as it met certain educational and curriculum standards, something that was and continues to be enforced by inspectors from the central government. To this day I remember when word got around at my elementary school that we were to be on good behaviour as an ‘inspector’ was coming to see if our school was compliant. Day to day administration of the schools was left to the municipalities and as opposed to North America there are no elected school boards. In 1920 funding was increased to such levels that all schools of all denominations got centrally funded.
In British Columbia the government funds private schools with select grants that help cover the cost of education, but these are not nearly enough which is why parents that send their children to such schools face a significant financial barrier. Supporters of the public system argue that growth of this type of funding has outstripped the growth in funding to public schools and that the taxpayer is financing elite educational facilities while the public system has to do with less and less every year. The counterpoint to this is that parents that let their children attend independent schools in fact subsidize the government or better put: they have to pay a premium as the government is not prepared to pick up the full per student cost as it is doing for those attending public schools. Both sides here have a point.
It should be noted that in Canada where education is specifically delegated to the provinces each province has its own approach. Ontario is a notable example where Catholic schools are funded out of the public purse – a somewhat historical anomaly – and attempts by other groups in that province to obtain similar funding have been thwarted by the courts whose rulings were based on an interpretation of Canada’s Constitution Act of 1867.
There is no point in comparing the Dutch system, which hails from a very different historical context and the situation in Canada and British Columbia in particular, which in its present format emerged only in 1977 when premier Bill Bennett introduced the current practice of partly funding private schools through operating grants out of the public purse. However contrasting these two approaches brings into focus the same fundamental question: does government fund public education only or does it fund all forms of education (with a possible carve out for the most elite outfits that don’t need any funding anyway)?
It poses a challenge to any society that sees itself as multicultural, plural, open, tolerant and liberal. Why not grant each group within your society the same level of educational freedom and fund it publicly in order to maintain the highest degree of openness and create the same level of opportunity for each and every child of whatever denominational background and thus the same chance at success? Or are we in a post-denominational era where we can expect everyone to partake in public education and pursue any religious or other specialized forms of education outside the school day? The Dutch have re-opened that debate to some extent as churches are emptying out while Muslim schools appear to be the key beneficiary of the 19th century law that sought to provide equal educational opportunities for all.
So is there a solution? At first sight it seems binary: either you fund all schools equally or you don’t and that is probably the way that adherents of each camp appear to prefer. It leads us to a parallel fundamental question, which is how education should be funded anyway, is it a private cost or is it the public purse? Or both? And in the latter case I would argue that even the most generously funded public system does require some form of parent support through fundraisers, co-payments or whatever format that helps maintain the overall and generally high cost of education. The impracticalities and complexities however make it impossible to take either route right away. Defunding independent schools and diverting the funds back to the public system may cause pressures on that very public system and force students back into a setting where their specific or denominational needs are not met. Alternatively, bankrolling all public and independent schools may be too costly of an exercise and upset the difficult fiscal balance that each Canadian province tries to find. And then some cynics may argue that the long march to privatization of British Columbia’s school system with less and less dollars for public schools is well underway and is a deliberate ploy by the current provincial government. This position, whatever its merits, doesn’t make a productive discussion all that easier.
As trustee in a publicly funded district I have a mandate to look after the interests of public education. Yet, that means that at the same time we are asked to evaluate the issues raised over public funding for independent schools. It seems that we need to get back to the drawing board on many aspects of education in British Columbia, from governance to funding to curriculum, so we might as well add this one to the debate.
Disclosure: I attended a publicly funded elementary private school in The Netherlands in the where liberal arts, independent inquiry and distrust of authority (hence our ability to address our teachers with their first name) were the foundational pieces of the school. It was well ahead of its time in many ways and looking back it was a real product of the free thinking movements of the 1970s. Following this my parents sent me to a publicly funded secondary Protestant school (despite the strong atheist overtones in our family) where on day one I was blasted by one of the teachers for having attended an ‘elitist’ private school, which it really wasn’t but it gives you an idea of the deep emotions around an issue in a country that had supposedly fixed the issue of independent schools.