Education and the 2012 Quebec Election: Part Six – Where do the Parties Stand on Public Subsidies for Private Schools?

By Robert Green

Thus far this series has looked at where Quebec’s political parties stand on education funding, curriculum reform, school autonomy ,the abolition of school boards and reducing the dropout rate. This article will examine where the parties stand on the public subsidies given to Quebec’s private schools.

The issue involving the structure of Quebec’s education system that has been getting the most attention from the political parties this election has been the abolition or restructuring of school boards. However, there is a far more important structural issue that, while negatively affecting the learning and achievement of all students, reserves its worst consequences for the most vulnerable and needy. This is the policy of denying the 163,000 special needs students in Quebec access to a large portion of province’s education system.

To understand this issue it is important to consider the structure of Quebec’s public education system. Quebec has a four-tiered education system: the fully private schools that receive no government subsidies and are not bound to follow provincial curriculum; the semi-private schools that do receive government subsidies and are bound to follow the Quebec curriculum; the “special status” public schools that have entrance exams; and the public schools that are open to all regardless of income or ability.  Entrance exams in the first three tiers ensure that it is only this final tier that is accessible to the majority of students with special needs, regardless of their ability to pay for private schools. The result is an over-representation of students with special needs within a portion of a public system whose resources are already stretched thin.

This situation would not be such a problem were it not for the public subsidies that make private schools more affordable and effectively allow so many families to opt-out of the public system. 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. This compares to a Canadian average of 5.6 percent. The only way to reduce private school enrollment and build a more equitable education system is to end the subsidies that allow so many to opt out of the public system. It is time for Quebecers to demand that their education system be structured based on principles of integration not segregation; equity not elitism.

For a more complete discussion of the issue of private school subsidies, see my previous post, “To Improve the Education System, Stop Subsidizing Private Schools”.

Parti Liberal du Quebec

The first indication that this issue was even on the radar of Jean Charest’s Liberals came in 2010 when Education Ministre Line Beauchamp made comments in the media that she was considering a major shake-up of Quebec’s education system. She deplored the fact that Quebec’s policies of integrating students with special needs had not achieved their desired results. She then floated the idea of requiring all schools with entrance criteria, both public and private, to admit a certain number of students with special needs. Unfortunately, the Liberals have not acted on this interesting proposal, nor does their electoral platform give any indication that they intend to.

Parti Quebecois

Apparently the Parti Quebecois was paying attention to Minister Beauchamp’s 2010 musings because they’ve integrated these ideas into their 2012 platform. The PQ promises to “modify the funding of private schools so that they are required, like public schools, to integrate and support students with learning difficulties”.  By tying this condition to funding, the PQ is ensuring that this policy does not affect the fully private schools that don’t receive government funding.

Coalition Avenir Quebec

Although the Coalition Avenir Quebec platform does commit to providing more funding and specialized resources for students with special needs, it does not acknowledge the fundamental problem of the over-representation of such students in certain schools. In fact, rather than advocating a model for making integration work, the CAQ seems to be calling for a return in the direction of the old model where such students were segregated in “special ed” classes. Its platform promises to “review the policies” regarding the integration of students with special needs into regular classes and “encourage more groups responding specifically to their needs”.

Quebec Solidaire

The Quebec Solidaire platform calls for the “progressive transfer” of funds from private school subsidies to the public system. The QS program for the public sector contains a section specifically devoted to the organization of the school system. It envisions reducing Quebec’s four tiered education system to two categories of schools, “public schools, totally funded by the state, and private schools, fully autonomous regarding their funding, but subject to the same requirements as public schools, especially with regard to curriculum and integration of students with special needs”. By committing to reduce Quebec’s education system to two categories of school whose only difference is its source of funding, Quebec Solidaire is proposing to move Quebec’s education system firmly in the direction of greater equity. This is extremely significant when one considers the fact that the country renowned internationally for having the highest achieving students, Finland, credits its focus on ‘equity over excellence’ as the reason for its success. The fact that QS is planning to phase this plan in gradually makes this proposal all the more pragmatic.

Option Nationale

The Option Nationale platform contains no mention of public subsidies for private schools or the integration of students with special needs.

Parti Vert du Quebec

Like that of Quebec Solidaire, the Green Party platform calls for the “abolition of subsidies granted to private schools”. However, it gives no indication whether this would be gradually phased in or implemented suddenly.

Check back soon for the next entry in this series that will focus on what the parties propose to do with the province’s teachers.

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