Quebec’s four-tiered education system a disservice to those in need

Abolishment of school boards got all the attention in recent election campaign, but special-needs students’ poor access to education is far more pressing

By Robert Green | A slightly edited version of this op-ed appeared in the Montreal Gazette September 26th 2012

The education issue that got the most attention during the recent Quebec election campaign was the proposed abolition or restructuring of school boards. However, there is a far more important structural problem that got far less attention. The problem involves the most vulnerable and needy students in our education system. It relates to the existing policy of denying 163,000 special-needs students in Quebec access to a large portion of the province’s education system.

To understand this issue, it is important to recognize as a starting point that Quebec has a four-tiered education system: fully private schools that receive no government subsidies and are not bound to follow provincial curriculum; semi-private schools that do receive government subsidies and are bound to follow the Quebec curriculum; “special status” public schools that have entrance exams; and public schools open to all, regardless of income or ability.

Entrance exams in all but a few of the schools 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 schooling.

The result is an over-representation of students with special needs within a portion of the education system — i.e., the fully public portion — where resources are already stretched thin.

This situation would not be such a problem were it not for the public subsidies to private schools that effectively allow so many families to opt-out of the public system. Compared with 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 per cent. On the island of Montreal, it has been estimated to be as high as 30 per cent. This compares with a Canadian average of 5.6 per cent.

The reason this multi-tiered education system should elicit concern has to do with what the world is learning about successful education systems.

Finland is renowned for consistently producing the highest achieving students in the world. In his recently published book Finnish Lessons, former Finnish education minister Pasi Sahlberg credits Finland’s success largely to its emphasis on ensuring “equal educational opportunities” for all of its students. This means in particular that all schools have the resources to meet the needs of students with various learning difficulties.

Though Finland does have a small number of private schools, they are forbidden from charging tuition or using selective entrance exams. They are also obliged by law to offer all of the services for special-needs students offered in any other school.

With its four-tiered system, Quebec is a long way from Finland’s model of emphasizing equity over excellence. With such a large private sector in education, it is the Canadian province that offers its citizens the least equal educational opportunities.

The best way to reduce private-school enrolment and build a more equitable education system is to end the subsidies that allow so many families to opt out of the public system. However, the PQ’s most recent electoral platform contained an interesting alternative proposal, one that would at least move the province’s education system in the direction of greater equity. The PQ’s platform promised to “modify the funding of private schools so that they are required, like public schools, to integrate and support students with learning difficulties.” While this would not remove the major systemic inequities, it would at the very least free up some resources within the public system to better meet the needs of its students.

Quebec’s Fédération des établissements d’enseignement privés says it is open to admitting more students with special needs, but would require more money from government to do so.

But the new PQ government should resist such calls for increased subsidies for private schools, and if private schools have to raise their admission fees in order to provide such services, then so be it. Meanwhile, the federations representing Quebec’s teachers need to work hard to ensure the PQ keeps its promise. For the time has come for all Quebecers to demand that the province’s education system be structured based on principles of integration and equity, not segregation and elitism.

Not only should the PQ keep its promise to require private schools to admit and provide services for students with special needs, it should also resist such calls for increased subsidies for private schools.

If private schools have to raise their admission fees in order to provide such services, so be it. Raising the cost will allow fewer families to opt out of the public system and will cause the private sector to shrink, thereby moving Quebec in the direction of a more equitable education system. In fact, this could serve as a useful intermediary step in moving the province towards the total elimination of private school subsidies.

If Finland’s experience is any indication, the PQ’s proposed policy should move Quebec in the direction of producing higher achieving students. The Federations representing Quebec’s teachers need to work to ensure the PQ keeps its promise.

Further, it is time for all Quebecers to demand that the province’s education system be structured based on principles of integration not segregation; equity not elitism.

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