Patti Bacchus on funding B.C.’s private schools with public money

The outspoken Vancouver School Board trustee (and former chair) says taxpayer dollars should stay in the public system

At a time when public schools across the province are facing budget shortfalls, should B.C. continue funding the private ones? Some of them, like religious schools, receive up to 50 percent funding, while elite private schools take in only a little less: 35 percent of what a public school would receive per student. The issue is certainly a divisive one (which you can read more about here), and Patti Bacchus is one of the loudest voices in the conversation. As a current Vancouver School Board trustee, as well as the board’s former chair, she has long been a proud crusader for public education. Recently, we spoke with Bacchus about private schools—and why she doesn’t think they need taxpayer help.B.C. has been funding private schools for a few decades now, but it seems like the issue has been bubbling to the surface recently. Why do you think that is?It was the Bill Bennett government that brought in funding for private schools, and prior to that private schools were privately funded. So over the years we’ve seen an increasing percentage of the provincial education budget—that’s funded by public funds—being diverted to private schools at a time when public schools are really struggling. So it’s becoming more of an issue. I’m certainly hearing about it from parents as I go out to meetings. In fact, many only recently have come to realize that they’re also paying for private schools with their taxes. So I think it is becoming a concern, particularly in Vancouver where we have a number of what we would refer to as “elite private schools” that are in the funding category where they spend much more per student than public schools are able to do. And I hear parents, and I agree with them, saying “I’m subsidizing a school I can’t afford to send my child to, while my own child’s school is losing programs and services.”What of people who say that every child, including children in private schools, deserves funding for their education? The Fraser Institute, for example, would argue that these children actually cost taxpayers less, since they receive less funding than students in the public system.Private schools were there long before they received funding, and they were an option for parents who wanted to opt-out of the public system. I don’t like my tax dollars going to elite schools that discriminate against who they accept. I don’t see that as a public good. I see public schools as a public good, and I’m more than happy to have my taxes pay for your child or anyone’s child to get a good-quality public education as part of that social good. If I decided I don’t want to use my community centre for the gym and other activities, and I prefer to belong to the Arbutus Club, I don’t expect the park board to supplement my membership fee at the private club. Community centres are there as a public good that we all contribute to. If I don’t want to use that, if I want something different or perhaps more deluxe, then I pay that myself. So it’s not a voucher kind of system where we get an allocated ticket and can go use it where we want, because that really ignores the economies of scale that are the benefit of public services.What about religious schools, which make up the majority of private schools—and are not necessarily elite?I certainly respect freedom of religion for parents to raise their children in their faith, but I don’t know that our public education should be going to subsidize that. That again to me is a personal, private decision and should be funded privately or through the faith group. To see our public funding going to subsidize schools that are dividing children as opposed to bringing different cultures and communities together, which is what we do at public schools, I don’t see a need for that. Those schools have existed for a very long time prior to getting public funding and I expect they would continue to, maybe not at the same rate, but again if you want to have that private option that should be privately funded.

READ: Why are B.C.’s religious schools receiving more money than ever before?

So, you think private schools can be divisive?When I think of my own kids, who went to public school in Vancouver, when we’re watching the news and we’re watching issues from different counties, they often know someone from that country. They’ll say, “Oh, that kid in my class, that’s where his family is from.” They can put a face to it, and I think as we go forward as a more global society, it’s really critical that we can understand that these are all people. When I go into Vancouver’s public schools, I see this incredibly diversity of students, but they’re working together in groups, they’re solving problems together, they’re respecting each other, they’re learning about each other’s cultures. I think that’s a real strength, and I think we could lose that if we all hive off into our different cultural or religious groups, or even gender groups.I find it interesting that you yourself went to private school as a child. What was that like?I went for two years to Crofton House in grade seven and eight. It’s a terrific school. It was my parents’ decision to send me there, and I met lots of wonderful other students, but I really wanted to be back in public school. I didn’t like the all-girls school at the age of 13 very much (she laughs), and I pleaded to be able to go back into the public system, where most of my friends were still going to school. By the end of Grade 8, I convinced my parents to let me do that. It’s a decision I don’t regret.So, what’s changed? Why has private school enrolment increased in this province?I think there have been some deliberate policy changes that have increased the attractiveness and accessibility of private education. This government brought in what it called the Public Education Flexibility and Choice Act for supporting what they refer to as school choice, and they have made it easier for independent or private schools to access public funding. They’ve done things like, if they do accept a student with special needs who is eligible for supplemental funding, they can get 100 percent of that supplemental funding grant. They have now been assured of tax-exempt status on their properties. They now have a parliamentary secretary to advocate for private schools. So this government has made it very clear that it is supportive of that, and at the same time they have been hard on the public school system in terms of funding issues. Most school districts have had to make a whole series of cuts over the last dozen years. We’ve seen school districts having to close schools and cut back on programs, which I think can lead to frustration…. I think parents are concerned about the impacts of class composition and class size and program availability. If I go to Crofton House or St. George’s website, I see that there are vibrant music programs, sports programs, outstanding academic programs, great facilities, and that’s attractive to parents. All parents want that for their kids.You mentioned students with special needs. I’ve heard people make this argument for private school: that it can be better for students who need extra attention.I have a son with learning disabilities, and I had at times even people in the system saying, “Well, have you thought about going to a private school?” And I say, every child, it’s a human right to have access to public education, and public education that meets their needs…We know how to support children with learning disabilities or other special needs. We know how to do that. Where we’re challenged is in having the resources, the staffing, the ratios and the facilities to do that, so it’s a financial constraint. I have a colleague on the board who quite openly talks about sending his child to a private school that supports children with learning disabilities. Well, those schools also charge over $20,000 in tuition, so they’re only a choice for parents who have the ability to pay those kinds of fees. That is not a publicly accessible program. I believe every parent with a child with a learning disability should have access to the programs they need through the public system, and it’s only the financial piece from preventing that from always happening as it should. But the Vancouver School Board does provide services to students with a whole range of special learning needs, and my son was one of them. At times, I had to fight for the right services, and they’re there. Are there enough of them? I’d say no, but that’s a funding issue. The reason why some private schools can provide what is perceived to be a better program is because they can have classes of six students and specialized one-on-one support—because they can spend three or four or five times as much per student as a public school. Should we be subsidizing that? I don’t think so. I think we should be putting those resources into public school and making sure that there’s enough there that every student has their needs met, regardless of their parents’ ability to pay.Any final comments?Some of the schools have fairly open enrolment while others discriminate quite clearly. They will screen students, they will interview them, they have to write an entrance test, they have to have references—if they have special needs, they may be excluded. I look at it a little bit like the parallel with public health. It’s like you setting up your own private hospital and saying you’re going to screen the patients to make sure they have a healthy lifestyle and good genetics—and accept public funding. Well, that’s pretty skewed. Obviously, you’re going to get better outcomes of health for your patients if they come to you with already good indicators. As a public school, we take all comers, anyone who arrives at the door. If their child is meeting the residency requirements, we take them. They can be hungry, they can have behavioural issues, they may not have stable housing, they may have emotional issues and a whole range of needs, and we take them, and we support them, and we do our very best. It’s a very uneven playing field when we have private schools that screen out everyone who may be a difficulty, yet expect to get public money.Follow @trevormelanson