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: Alberta, British 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.