THINK TANK: Privatization and Public Education

On December 7th, IPE/BC (with the support of Your Education Matters) held a Think Tank to discuss the wide range of issues around privatization in public education in British Columbia. IPE/BC Fellows, teachers, researchers, and community leaders came together to consider what issues to address and how strategically to do so. Joel French, Executive Director of Public Interest Alberta, started the conversation with a keynote address, Anti-private and Pro-public Advocacy in K-12 education: Lessons from Alberta.

IPE/BC will be considering the many ideas generating in moving forward with its strategic goal of supporting the public in public education.

 

Why Not Abolish School Property Taxes Altogether?

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

Why Not Abolish School Property Taxes Altogether?

by John Malcolmson

People concerned about Vancouver’s speculator-driven rise in real estate costs might have been encouraged to see the NDP government impose a special property surtax on high cost houses in last month’s provincial budget. This tax is estimated to raise $50 million in the current fiscal year.

Obviously, anything that makes the well-heeled pay a little extra or tames profit-taking in the housing market should benefit the push for increased affordability.

Of particular interest is that monies raised by the tax are earmarked for the public schools. After all, our hard-pressed school system can use all the funding support it can get, right?

It is useful to pause and consider the underlying facts with property taxes. The BC School Act mandates that all school property taxes raised in the province are to be used to fund public schools. But will the extra money raised in Vancouver, where most $3 million+ valued homes are located, go to the beleaguered District 39?  Not a chance. This is where the story gets interesting.

For years Vancouver has raised more property tax than is needed to fund its budget because school property tax tracks assessed property values not school expenditures. What this means is when all Vancouver taxes are counted and the value of homeowner grants to School District residents is deducted, the District brings in more money than is required to fund its entire provincial grant. In 2015, the district raised $447 million in property tax in support of returning provincial school grant payments of $434 million, a surplus of $13 million. The current surplus is likely higher than 2015 because of the past two years’ rapid run-up in city real estate prices.

This is a curious because the provincial government controls tax rates applied to the various classes of property and residential rates are specific to each district. The province could tweak rates further down in a revenue surplus district like Vancouver to reduce the take and bring tax receipts back into balance with what is needed. But it doesn’t.

The net result is that “surplus” taxes raised in Vancouver are shipped to other districts around the province to subsidize their budgetary requirements. This is because the provincial government controls and fixes the size of budgetary allocations to BC’s sixty school districts. There is no more room for additional property tax dollars in the Vancouver school district budget because the District already overfunds its budget. Paradoxically, layering another property tax onto upscale city real estate will only make the current imbalance worse. Because the overwhelming majority of new surtax revenue will come from Vancouver, this is very much a revenue measure that singles out the city, its school district and its property owners.

(See here, for this analysis of Provincial Property-based Taxes in the Metro Vancouver Region prepared by Cascadia Partners.)

How can this problem be solved?  Returning property tax control to each district may sound like a solution, but it is not. Property tax assessments are unevenly distributed in this province and giving control to local districts would be a retrograde step, one that would move BC in the direction of many American jurisdictions where the gap separating rich and poor school districts is wide. For obvious reasons, we do not want a situation where some BC districts can raise new taxes this way and others simply cannot.

A real solution would be to abolish property taxes earmarked for school purposes, or at least the residential property taxes which currently account for close to 40% of total property tax receipts. There is no good reason to maintain a tax levy created a century ago when districts lacked access to other sources of revenue. Today, districts have recourse to the provincial budget and the province is responsible for properly funding our public schools. School property taxes on residences are an anachronism that should be done away with.

Most, but not all, Canadian provinces still rely on property tax support because changing tax systems is difficult and runs the risk of unsettling local governments and taxpayers. Nonetheless, BC has an opportunity to break new ground here in efforts to reform public school finance.

Another real benefit in this proposal is that it could allow local governments in Vancouver and elsewhere to access tax room for other priorities. Our local governments are perennially starved for funding to support important transportation initiatives or the development of low cost housing. Both are key to the development of livable and affordable cities.

Property taxes used to be a keystone of public school finance in this province. Now they are an important revenue base held hostage to an antiquated system. The province needs to accept its responsibility for fully funding all schools equitably, and local governments need the revenue tools to fix urgent problems that threaten urban affordability and livability. Both problems could be addressed through this needed reform of the school property tax system.

John Malcolmson is an IPE/BC Fellow and was formerly the CUPE K-12 sector research analyst.

 

Private Schools Don’t Need Public Funding

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

Private Schools Don’t Need Public Funding

by Joel French

Private schools do not need public funding. That could easily have been the title of the Fraser Institute’s recent report on private schools across Canada.

The data throughout the report certainly supports that conclusion, though of course it is never stated. Instead, the report, titled A Diverse Landscape: Independent Schools in Canada, reads like a marketing piece for private schools and is focused on dispelling a straw man argument that private schools are only for the “urban elite.” The report finds that nearly half of private schools are religious in nature and that many others are “specialty schools” with a particular curriculum focus, such as arts or athletics.

The data in the report paints a clear picture: public funding for private schools is completely unnecessary.

Looking beyond this main focus, the report contains interesting information related to the public funding of private schools. It points out that only five of Canada’s 10 provinces provide any funding for private schools: British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Quebec. Alberta funds its private schools at a higher rate than any other province at 70 per cent, while British Columbia has the highest percentage of private schools receiving public funding at 87.9 per cent.

The fact that only five provinces fund private schools allows us to analyze the impact that public funding has on those schools’ student enrollment, as well as the correlation between public funding and the number of private schools in each province. The data in the report paints a clear picture: public funding for private schools is completely unnecessary. The level of public funding allocated to private schools has no direct correlation with student enrollment in private schools nor in the number of private schools in operation.

The release of the Fraser Institute’s report was accompanied by three province-specific statements for British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario. The three provinces offer very different levels of public funding, so they provide a good sample to analyze the effect of public funding on private schools. British Columbia funds the majority of its private schools at a level of 50 per cent, while Alberta funds most of its private schools at 70 per cent, and Ontario provides no funding for its private schools.

The Fraser Institute has claimed that private schools save public money. This claim relies on the assumption that if public funding were to be removed from private schools, students from those schools would flock to the public system where their education would cost the public even more money. The problem is that their own data tells a different story.

Of the three provinces, the one giving the most public funding to private schools has the lowest private school enrollment. Alberta’s rate of student enrollment in private schools is 4.4 per cent, while British Columbia’s is 11.6 per cent, and Ontario’s is 5.6 per cent. So although British Columbia provides public funding at a rate 20 per cent below that of Alberta, its enrollment in private schools is more than double. And although Ontario provides no public funding at all to private schools, they have a higher enrollment rate than their Alberta counterparts. Clearly, the number of students attending private schools does not depend on the rate of public funding and can even be higher without public funding.

The number of private schools in the three provinces tells a similar story. Alberta has one private school for roughly every 28,000 residents, whereas both British Columbia and Ontario have one for every 14,000 residents. So the province funding private schools at the highest rate (Alberta) has half the number of schools per capita of the other two provinces. Less or no public funding evidently does not lead to fewer private schools.

If the biggest benefit to the public of having private schools is to save the public money, then the data in the Fraser Institute report points in an obvious direction. Instead of Alberta funding its private schools at a rate of 70 per cent, it could drop its funding to the British Columbia level of 50 per cent and save even more money. Or better yet, it could eliminate public funding for private schools altogether like Ontario, where there are more private schools per capita and a higher student enrollment rate.

The NDP government in Alberta has yet to follow through on three of the education-related promises in its election platform. It pledged to reduce class sizes and increase supports for children with complex needs, reduce mandatory school fees for things like lunch supervision and bussing, and fund a school lunch program for elementary students. The platform pegged the total cost of those three promises at $140 million per year, and the plan was to begin that funding in 2015. Last year, Alberta gave more than $200 million in public funding to private schools.

The Fraser Institute’s report, true to its purpose, paints a rosy picture of private schools in Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario. In fact, its press releases for each province are nearly identical, with an equal amount of praise doled out to each province. Compare them yourself: AlbertaBritish Columbia and Ontario

Which leads to the question: if the private school situations in these three provinces are to be lauded in such a carbon-copy manner, why should public money be given to private schools at all?

Note: This piece was previously published in Ricochet July 19, 2016.

Joel French is Executive Director of Public Interest Alberta.

Change Comes to BC Schools… It’s Just a Beginning

There is no doubt the Supreme Court of Canada decision to uphold the BCTF appeal against the former provincial government’s legislation means, among many other things, a dramatic improvement in educational services and opportunities available to British Columbia children and families.

There will be thousands of additional teachers in BC classrooms this September. So, tens of thousands of children will get additional one to one help. Students’ individual learning styles, strengths, and weaknesses will be easier to spot. Assessment will be more straightforward. Teachers will be better able to diagnose the specific needs of individual students and develop programs, materials and processes that fit those needs. Classroom discussions can be deeper, richer and include the active participation of more children.

Like parents, students, teachers and other educational workers, IPE/BC welcomes these real and important improvements. Still, there are at least three important things to remember as we watch this new era of increased resources roll out.

First, for 15 years increased funding that should have been there wasn’t.  So incremental improvements didn’t happen as they should have. Quite the opposite. Year after year, cuts made teachers’, principals’, and school boards’ jobs much harder. So when all at once a decade and a half of disruption is partly remediated, it’s not all going to be smooth sailing. There will inevitably be glitches, tensions and frustrations. It will be tempting for some, and ideologically convenient for others, to put the blame for bumps in the road on the province’s teachers and their insistence on achieving justice under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, responsibility will properly lie with the government that promulgated the offending legislation in the first place and then fought tooth and nail for fifteen years to defend it.

Second, while reports from most School Boards around the province indicate the Court’s ruling is being implemented quite smoothly, we are hearing from some Boards and schools that there are some inequities and uncertainties about staffing and resource allocation.  The Ministry, the Boards and the BCTF should see to it that every child gets the support required by the letter and the spirit of the SCC decision.

Third, the previous provincial government failed to provide funding for deferred maintenance, seismic upgrades, and new school construction. This meant districts were forced to close schools, mitigate space shortages with portables, and address only the most egregious maintenance issues. While new teachers can be brought in relatively quickly, it will take time and resources for districts to rebuild their space capacity and upgrade facilities to adequate seismic and instructional standards.

Though it is perhaps difficult to remember, the situation in BC schools in January 2002 (when the infamous laws were passed) wasn’t close to perfection. Resources and funding were sadly lacking in many important areas. Simply bringing the situation back to where it was fifteen years ago, while a significant achievement and well worth celebrating, is just the beginning.

How GERM is Infecting BC Public Education

IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education. Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows to share their ideas in short, accessible essays.

How GERM is Infecting BC Public Education

By E. Wayne Ross

The Institute for Public Education BC is committed to public education for the good of all children, families and communities and this is reflected in its tag line, “public education is a public interest.”

This proposition may seem obviously true, but it’s not.

Public education in British Columbia, across Canada, and globally faces serious challenges when it comes to serving the common good. Over the last half century, the dominant world view has privileged the individual over the well-being of the general public.

This view and the policies that flow from it are referred to as “neoliberalism.” Governments across the political spectrum, both the politically conservative and liberal, share belief in the major tenets of neoliberalism, including fiscal austerity, privatization of public goods and services, government deregulation, and free trade.

In education, neoliberalism is manifest in what Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg has dubbed the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM), which:

  • prioritizes and imposes a business model on public education;
  • increases competition among students, teachers and schools (test-based accountability; performance-related rewards; league-tables; attacks on teacher unions);
  • supports an audit and accountability culture that takes education out the hands of teachers, students, and the public;
  • commodifies education via “school choice,” which positions students and parents as consumers in an education marketplace;
  • promotes the privatization and marketization of public schools (education becomes a service sector open to trade and investors; off-shore schools; and selling seats in schools and universities on the international market);
  • sees public education as an opportunity to maximize human capital (i.e., a narrowly educated workforce) as opposed to maximizing the common good and social cohesion.

These reforms are backed by many governments as well as The World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Despite rhetoric linking GERM to benefits for all within the vast constituency of public education, the fact is that those who regulate both knowledge and the economy work for their own political and economic agendas, acting as though the public extended no farther than their privately secured office buildings and comfortably gated communities.

GERM in British Columbia

GERM has infected public education in British Columbia and the symptoms are obvious.

  • School closures – In the past 15 years, over 200 public schools have been closed in BC.
  • Government destruction of agreed upon guidelines on class size and composition, which have had deleterious effects on learning and teaching conditions.
  • Reduction in the number of teachers, teacher-librarians, and classroom aides. Educators in BC are responsible for more children on average, than educators in the rest of Canada, a gap that is widening.
  • Selling school and universities seats on international market has become a major source of income growth for schools and universities in BC.
  • Off-shore schools – BC public school districts have been encouraged to create private business companies that are owned by school boards and operate to sell education overseas.
  • An estimated $5 billion in deferred maintenance for school buildings.
  • School rankings that oversimplify the characteristics of good schools; commodify education; and rely primarily on standardized test scores, which advantage schools with students from wealthy families.
  • Commercialization – Corporate incursion into schools that encourages competition; injects corporate advertising, exploiting underfunded schools.
  • Expansion of private tutoring companies, many of which are owned by international corporations.
  • British Columbia now spends $1000 less per student than the Canadian national average.
  • Reduction in government spending on public education. In 2001, the BC government put 20% of its total spending into education, now it spends just 11.8% of its budget on education.
  • Reliance on parent fund-raising via Parent Advisory Committees; it is estimated that parents now spend $132 million yearly in subsidies to public education.

Examining BC education funding trends, we can see how neoliberal education policies shift social costs on to individuals. These same trends can be found in other public services such as the health care and transportation.

At the same time, the BC government gives public money to subsidize private schools, many of which serve the rich and charge thousands of dollars in tuition.

Public Funding of Private Education is Undemocratic

Public funding for private schools is at odds with creating a more equitable, just, and democratic society.

It is a policy that almost always privileges families with more disposable income over the less wealthy and poor, and often privileges religious education over secular education. Moreover, public funding of private schools supports a two-tiered system of education that allows some schools to cherry-pick who attends, and undermines the concepts of the public good and community in favour of individual gain.

Public-school budget cuts result in closed libraries, reduced special-education services and increased class size, while private schools are publicly subsidized to provide the advantaged with more benefits. These advantages include smaller class sizes allowing teachers to be more responsive to student needs, to customize learning activities, and to provide private-school students with enriched curricula in art, sports and music programs.

For the first hundred years of British Columbia history there was no public funding of private or religious schools. The Social Credit government introduced public funding of private education in 1977 and only then did private school enrolment begin to increase, taking a larger share of the provincial education budget.

Under the BC Liberals, British Columbians have been subjected to a steady stream of ideologically driven public-policy decisions that shift responsibility for providing and financing public services from the public to the private domain. As with other public assets, their aim is to privatize the commonwealth of the province.

Public funding of private schools is a form of privatization consistent with fundamental ideological positions of the BC Liberals in particular and neoliberalism in general. Privatizing public enterprises, goods and services is usually done in the name of increased efficiency, but mainly has the effect of concentrating wealth in fewer hands (the gap between the wealthiest and the majority of BC families has grown dramatically over the past 30 years) and making the public pay more for its needs (see, for example, BC Ferries).

Not unlike academy schools in England or charter schools in the US, public funding of private schools in BC is privatization through the back door.

Elite private schools are subsidized by the public, while public schools are told to look to the market — recruiting tuition-paying international students, setting up school-district business companies, or opening their doors to corporate programs — or to parent-fundraising, to solve a budget crisis imposed by government’s distorted priorities.

The fundamental idea of public funding for private schools is based on the false premise that private schools do a better job. In reality, public-school students outperform private school students. A 2012 study of first-year physics students at the University of BC found that those who had graduated from public schools in Metro Vancouver outperformed their private-school peers. This finding is reiterated in a study just published by the University of Chicago Press, which concludes public schools achieve mathematics results the same as or better than private schools with demographically similar students. In 2006, the Educational Testing Service reached similar conclusions, finding that US public-school students outpaced private-school students in both reading and math.

Private-school enrolment is soaring because it is encouraged by public policies that divert public money to support private interests and by ideologies that promote individualism and private gain over community and shared interests.

It is time for education policy in BC that recognizes public education is a public interest.

E. Wayne Ross is a Professor of education at the University of British Columbia and an IPE/BC Board Member and Fellow.