Not all parents are worried about school closures in the current teachers’ dispute.
Christy Clark and thousands of others have opted out of the public school system and pay large fees for children to go to private schools. They are not affected by the strike/lockout.
But they’re still a factor. About 76,000 children are enrolled in private schools, about 12 per cent of all students. Their parents tend to be affluent, educated, and highly concerned about their children’s education.
If their sons and daughters were being kept from school, they would be cranky. And they have much greater ability to make life unpleasant for government. They have the money, time, energy and commitment to raise a mighty fuss about closed schools or even missed days.
Private schools place them above the fray, and offer another reason to shell out the fees - $6,000 to $20,000 per year, typically.
More and more parents have been choosing private schools, despite the cost. In the last four years, public school enrolment has dropped about four per cent, while private schools have attracted about 10 per cent more students.
A decade ago, 9.6 per cent of students were in private schools. Now it’s 12 per cent.
The Liberals pride themselves on a business-like approach to governing and good management. But a business that was losing more and more market share to competitors would decide something was wrong and fix it.
The government, and the people in charge of the education ministry, haven’t done that.
Nor has their been any serious discussion about the impact of an expanding private school system.
We like to think that we’re an egalitarian society and people with intelligence, talent and drive have a relatively equal chance at success.
Quality public education is one of the most important elements in creating that kind of society.
A two-tier education system undermines equality of opportunity. The income of parents, not talent and effort, becomes a critical factor in the kind of life children can achieve.
That’s wasteful for society; the talent of a significant portion of the population isn’t fully utilized.
And it entrenches and increases inequality.
There’s a persistent fallacy that inequality just happens, or is the result of economic forces beyond our control.
But inequality in Canada reflects policy choices that governments have made. Cutting unemployment benefits or freezing disability payments makes some people at the bottom of the income ladder poorer. Reducing income taxes makes people at the top end richer.
The choices that have led to an increase in private school enrolments will increase inequality in the future.
That’s not to say government should ban private schools. Parents have a right to choose.
But the government now subsidizes private education with per-pupil grants at 50 per cent of the grants to public school districts. The subsidy could be 40 per cent. It could be eliminated entirely. It could be increased. Those are policy choices, and some would slow the move to private schools and reduce future inequality.
Or the government could look harder at why parents are judging the public system inadequate and address those issues. It could do research parents are choosing private schools and address those concerns.
None of this has a direct relation to the current labour dispute. The teachers’ union is seeking to improve working conditions and income for members; the government is trying to save money. Both sides talk about the students, but their own interests come first. That’s the nature of union-management negotiations. (It might that the best thing for students would be a 10-per-cent pay reduction in teachers’ pay, with the money used to hire an additional 4,000 teachers. No one could reasonably expect the union to agree to such a change.)
Nor is it a partisan issue. Private school enrolment, as a percentage of all students, increased at virtually the same rate during the last NDP governments.
It should be a concern. We claim to believe it’s important that all children have a fair chance at making the most of their lives.
The increasing emergence of a two-tier education system shows we don’t actually care about that principle. Or, for that matter, that we recognize the unfairness and corrosiveness of increasing inequality.
Footnote: Not all parents who send their children to private schools are rich, not all private schools are ritzy. The current per-pupil grant to public school districts is about $6,900; private schools get $3,450.