To Improve the Education System, Stop Subsidizing Private Schools

By Robert Green

A slightly edited verion of this Op-ed appeared in the November 15 edition of the Montreal Gazette

Although the next provincial election in Quebec may still be well over a year away, education is already emerging as one of its central issues. Francois Legault has been clear about his intentions to bring elements of George Bush’s ‘No Child Left Behind’ to Quebec, including performance-based incentives for teachers and schools.

Meanwhile the Liberals have been flirting with controversial ideas of their own such as making deep cuts to school boards and using performance indicators to determine school funding.

What all parties seem to agree on is that Quebec’s education system is in crisis.

This, however, is nothing new. For at least the last twenty years politicians have been wringing their hands over the Quebec education system’s poor performance and high drop-out rate. Their response has been one ill-fated policy-fix after another. Prior to this latest focus on performance-based incentives, it was curriculum reform that was supposed to serve as our miracle cure.

Despite the ubiquitous concern over education constantly expressed by Quebec’s politicians, there is one issue with enormous implications that never seems to get the attention it deserves. In the ongoing debate over the future of Quebec’s education system this issue is truly the elephant in the room: public subsidies for private schools.

The reason that this is such an important issue has to do with what the available research tells us about successful educations systems. There is a large body of research indicating that putting strong students in the same class with weaker students creates a better learning situation for all students. Weaker students benefit by having strong academic habits modelled by the stronger students and stronger students benefit from the leadership and mentoring roles they inevitably accept.

As such policies are often misunderstood to be directed exclusively at improving struggling students, it bears repeating that the learning of all students, weak and strong, is improved. When full integration is done well, it is a wave that lifts all boats.

The problem with Quebec’s subsidies for private schools is that they create a system based on segregation not integration. By making private schools significantly more affordable they effectively remove much of the upper and middle class from public education.

Since there is a well-documented correlation between socio-economic status and educational achievement, the result is an under-representation of stronger students in our public schools.

Compounding the problem is the fact that many private schools have entrance criteria that prevent students with special needs from enrolling, resulting in an over-representation of such students in our public system.

All the research indicates that creating such a system with an under-representation of strong students and an over-representation of students with special needs is a recipe for poor student achievement. Given this situation, we should not be at all surprised by the poor results achieved overall by Quebec’s education system.

However, it is not simply a problem of the public system losing students from affluent families; it is also a problem of losing their parents. A wide body of research shows that parent participation is one of the key factors to a school’s success. For a number of reasons, the reality is that affluent families have a far greater ability to volunteer at their child’s school. When we remove these families from our public education system, we also remove the invaluable results of their volunteer efforts. Parent participation creates a form of accountability for a school that is far more connected to the real needs of local communities than any ‘performance indicators’ dreamed up by government bureaucrats could possibly be.

Being a high school teacher in Quebec that attended high school in Ontario, these are issues I think about often. At the large public high school I attended in downtown Toronto I had kids from Toronto’s poorest and richest neighbourhoods in any given class. Each morning there were kids that arrived to school by public transport, kids that arrived in Jaguars and everything in between. As commonplace as this is in Ontario and indeed most of Canada, it is a scenario that simply does not occur in Quebec.

Compared to other provinces, Quebec has by far the highest percentage of students enrolled in private schools and the numbers are on the rise. From 2004 to 2010 the number of secondary students enrolled in private schools rose from 17 to 19 percent. On the Island of Montreal it has been estimated to be as high as 30 percent. The only way to reduce these numbers and bring many of those students and their parents back to the public system is to end the subsidies that allow so many to opt out.

Were the Quebec government to do so, the available research suggests we might finally see some real improvement in the chronically poor results Quebec’s education system has been producing for years.

10 Responses to “To Improve the Education System, Stop Subsidizing Private Schools”

  1. If private schools lost their public subsidies I would expect the percentage of kids enrolled to gradually drop from where it is now, around 19%, to closer to Ontario’s 5-6% …perhaps lower, given the sorry state of the global economy. It’s very true that this would require an investment, but it’s an investment every other province is making. Here we set-up this unjust system where a portion of our taxes goes to helping create a multi-tiered education system instead of a single high quality system for all.

  2. Hi Robert,

    Thanks for you letter to the Gazette in response to my piece about the choices facing parents in Montreal’s complex educational landscape.

    There seems to be some confusion about the actual mathematics about the subsidies in this debate. So, here they are.

    According to statscan, Ontario and Quebec pay the same amount per child enrolled in the public system, roughly 10,000 per child. In Quebec however, private schools receive a per child subsidy equivalent to about 60% of the cost of a public school education in Quebec. The other 40% per cent is paid by either the parent in the form of tuition, or the school in the form of scholarship or financial aid.

    As a result, the socioeconomic profile of each school in Montreal depends on numerous, endlessly debatable factors.

    In a private school like Upper Westmount for instance, the subsidies go as financial aid to upper Westmount residents who can’t afford to pay the same tuition as the extremely wealthy Francophone and American residents who have bought themselves eligibility certificates by attending the unsubsidized elementary schools that cost about 15,000 a year. (Thank God the EMSB paid 20,000 in legal fees to protect their rights to their financial aid, when the government tried to pass bill 104 to close the loophole that created this sad situation!).

    At huge French private schools like Regina Assumpta (2,200 students) and Jean Eudes (1,800) in largely lower middle class neighborhoods like Ahuntsic and Rosemont,, the subsidies often go to scholarships and financial aid for students in those neighborhoods, since the schools aren’t situated comfortably in wealthy neighborhoods where residents are more likely to send their kids to the more upper crust schools. like Brebeuf and Notre Dame. The schools also have an arrangement with the burroughs to share the cost of sports facilities, like football and soccer fields that serve both the needs of the school and the burrough. I have sat in the auditorium with the parents of 400 kids, just in grade 7, and believe me, it is the same mix you would find in your nostalgic Ontario childhood. Except that it’s the suburban kids taking public transport, and paying for private schoolbuses, not the local kids.

    The situation for the upper crust French schools is a little more complex. For instance there is a CSDM choir school for about 100 boys solicited from the public schools in grade two. They sing in the Oratory choir every second sunday and tour Quebec in the summer, and get full high school scholarships to Notre Dame paid for by the CSDM. The CSDM has also has created many elite elementary seed schools, Le Plateau, Fernand Seguin, Saint Barthelme, who generally have an easy time getting into those, also very large, schools.

    The remaining private schools, who form the 90% of private schools with no waiting lists in Quebec, service a wider range of parents, usually middle class, sometimes kids with special needs who’ve been referred their by the hospitals, sometimes lower middle class who use the money they don’t pay for higher morgages or rents, or higher university tuition to pay for the chance to put their children in contact with the kind of children who they see being funnelled into the elite public system, by the CSDM.

    So, as you see it’s not a “stretch” to say that these schools sometimes serve the needs of lower middle class students.

    It’s a weird system, I’ll concur. And it’s hard to say if the exodus to the semi-private schools is a result of the segregation created by the public elite system, or a cause of it. They both seem to have started at around the same time. But it’s not a system that is going to be fixed overnight by pulling half of the funding from 30% of the schools in Montreal. And there’s not much justification for that, since Quebec students seem to be performing as well on international tests as Ontario students. And there isn’t much solid evidence supporting the theory that the 30% drop out rate is due to this system. It may be. It may be the simple fact that Ontario makes education compulsory until 18, so it’s easier to force kids to stay. Fortunately our system tempts may of the drop outs back by age 24. In that age group there are only 5% less students with high school diplomas than their Ontario counterparts. Recent research done by Quebec’s top researchers, links this drop out rate more to intractable poverty, and it will be interesting to see if the results of government spending in daycare and early childhood education over the last decade will start producing any results towards correcting this.

    In the meantime, it would be foolish and cruel to make dramatic policy changes to the educational system. There are families with multiple children in these schools, and it was extremely irresponsible for Marie Malvoy to brainstorm in public with the idea that she might pull the funding from these schools.

    If the public systems thinks that admission exams are causing the problem, maybe they could start with re-integrating their system. With thriving mixed public schools, maybe more middle class parents will be tempted to return. Some people really want to spend $3000 for an elite education. Most would be just as happy with a good enough education, if they thought is was available to them. The main thing stopping middle class French parents from sending their kids to public schools is actually the poor teaching of English. Most Montrealers want their kids to be bilingual and this is probably the #1 reason why private schools have become so popular. They offer this service, while the public schools are crippled by nationalist teachers unions who insist that ESL teachers pass rigorous French tests. As a result there are few anglophones teaching the 3.5 English classes a week that are taught in the enforced provincial curriculum.

    However, there is no justification for your assertion that lower middle calls parents are subsidizing the private schools. Were students to return to the public system, they would be costing the government 40% more.

    It’s simple math.

    Maybe when you’re not reading about Finland, you can take one day to go visit one of the many well subsidized, excellent public schools on the French side. Sophie Barat, Lucien Paget, Pierre Marquette are all thriving, interesting, dynamic schools with tons of services and resource sharing plans. The drop out rate in these schools is mystifiying. But it’s not happening because these schools aren’t well enough funded. They get exactly the same funding as their Ontario counterparts.

    If there are funding problems on the English side, maybe you need to take a more focused look at your own school board and how it is spending the exact same amount per child with such dismal results.

    It think that’s the best place to start any concrete change.


    Juliet Waters

  3. If you look at table 1 of , you’ll see that although the enrollment for French-subsidized private schools has decreased while that of non-subsidized schools has gone up from 1998 to 2012, enrollment in English private schools has increased, regardless of subsidy. Of course the ratio of students enrolled in semi-subsidized French and English schools to that of totally private ones is 25:1 and 3:1, respectively, so you’re right, a reduction of subsidy would be a deterrent to the continued and democratically-threatening escape from public schools.

    But after decades of efforts, I’ve given up on trying to dissuade neighbors, colleagues and relatives from sending their kids to private high schools, especially when their kids were in some cases attending our best public feeder school. The following observations from the 4 of my 31 years spent in private schools fell on deaf ears:

    (1) The ratio of dedicated to lazy teachers is not any better in a private school. Ditto for administrators. The lazy ones are often better at covering it up.
    (2) The schools are just as likely to be guilty of grade inflation.
    (3) They do a better job of marketing themselves and keeping a shiny veneer.
    (4) Generally, students in private schools are not significantly more capable or altruistic than those in public schools.


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