Public education, private education and funding

Diverting public funds to subsidize private schools seems like a bad idea, doesn’t it? Well, apparently about 2/3 of Albertans think it’s a bad idea.

Let’s do some math.

Full disclosure time. I only ever attended public schools. My wife only ever attended public schools. My wife is a teacher in the public school system. Both our kids are roughly half way through their primary educational careers, and they have both only ever attended public schools. We fully intend to keep them in public schools.

In short, I have no axe to grind against the public school system, per se.

Now, back to that funding question.

At the CBE website I discovered their budget numbers and found some very interesting details. The CBE spends about $1.34B (page 9) to educate roughly 119,000 students (page 17). That works out to a total of about $11,260 per student, per year. 92% of that money comes from the province (page 13), which amounts to about $10,359 that you and I pay, through taxes, to educate students in the public system.

According to the frontier centre for public policy Albertans “subsidize” students in private schools to the tune of about $5,200 per student per year. Put another way, it costs the province – and hence, taxpayers – roughly half as much public funding to educate children in private schools as it does to educate them in public schools. Either way they get educated, but if it costs taxpayers half as much money wouldn’t a smart government do everything it could to encourage people to enroll their kids in private schools? Talk about an easy way to reduce your overall expenses by outsourcing some of the education. Even class sizes might end up shrinking.

Ah, but not all educations are alike, one might counter. Can we be certain that private schools are actually producing adequate educational results? Here’s an interesting study from Statistic Canada which reports,

Private high school students score significantly higher than public high school students on reading, mathematics, and science assessments at age 15, and have higher levels of educational attainment by age 23.

Poking around on the internet it quickly becomes clear this is not an outlier.

Well, isn’t that interesting. Private schools actually do better than public. Huh. Which tells us that those who are clamouring to cut funding to private schools: clearly have politics at the forefront of their agenda, not the flourishing of children. If they had the student’s best interests in mind then they would, once again, encourage more attendance at private schools, not less; they would seek to lower the barriers to attendance at private schools, not raise the barriers.

Ok, so maybe the students score well on paper, but are they good citizens? Do they actually contribute to society in a positive manner? This report from the Fraser Institute documents (page 17) that parents of students in private schools in Ontario were:

  • More likely to vote than people in the general population.
  • About three times more likely to be involved in a political party or group.
  • More likely to be involved in sports and recreational organizations (44% versus 35%).

Not surprisingly, kids tend to imitate their parents so it strains credibility to propose that kids from private schools are less civic-minded than kids from public schools. Once again, this kind of data is not an outlier. Other studies show civic participation of students in private schools is at least as good as civic participation of students in public schools; often better.

Better education. Better civic responsibility. Lower cost to the taxpayer. I don’t see a downside. So what’s the real issue? According to the news article some voices are concerned about, “Subsidizing the wealthy and privileged…”

Ah, so now we get to the crux of the matter. Those students in private schools come from rich homes, and are privileged, and it is always socially acceptable to look down one’s nose at those with money and… um… whatever the heck “privilege” really is.

According to the Fraser Institute report (above) not all parents of students in private schools are wealthy. It is true that the proportion of parents who are financially well-off is higher than the general public – the proportion earning over $120,000 per year is roughly double the rate of the general population – but parents of private school children are hardly a homogeneous lot. Many families who send their kids to private schools have a net household income of less than $90,000 per year, and some earn less than $30,000 per year. Still, the value of a private school education is well worth the sacrifice for those families, and government funding likely makes the difference between a private school (greater academic success, more civic-minded) and a public school.

And regardless of the wealth of the parents, there is a matter of principle here. All citizens contribute the taxes to pay for the education of the children in the province. If the government did not financially contribute to the education of children in private schools then those parents would be paying to educate their children (school fees) and paying to education other people’s children (taxes) without any contribution from the government. How is that fair?

[It could be argued that people without children shouldn’t have to pay those taxes and, frankly, there’s something to think about. What if all education was “fee for service?” Maybe we might place a little more emphasis on Johnny getting his homework done? That’s a thought for another day.]

I see no good reason for the government to stop investing in the education of children just because their parents don’t happen to want to use the government controlled system. Frankly, if the government spends around $10,000 per student per year in the public system then I think we should consider increasing the financial contribution to private schools to match that. That would likely drive more students to private schools, dropping class sizes in the public system, reducing operating expenses for public schools, and improving the overall academic success and civic responsibility of the next generation.

Everybody wins!