By Katharine Cukier,
The public commitment to egalitarianism alongside a private nurturing of elitism breeds a bizarre kind of schizophrenia’ ‘. Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion
Progressives everywhere are inspired by the commitment and passion of the red square movement. The students have insisted that access to quality education is at the heart of any society that takes its democracy seriously. A few of us, however, have been waiting impatiently for the movement to take on the fundamental cause of unequal access to quality education in Quebec; it is the elephant in the room, so to speak whenever you talk about education here in Quebec. Noboby talks about it much: that may be because 30% of the population is riding on top of the elephant all the way to the doors of university.
Many people who get to university in Quebec have benefitted from generous subsidies given to a large network of exclusive private primary and secondary . 33% of all Montreal high school students are enrolled in private secondary schools . In contrast, the Canadian average is 6%. Many striking students, and probably the majority of all francophone university students in Quebec are graduates of this very unfair system. And no one in the student movement is talking about it.
Yet, in Quebec, access to quality education at the secondary level is a significant determinant of who gets access to university. My own young children are in the private primary system, and as I marched and banged pots I, knew that there was something paradoxical if not hypocritical about demanding lower university fees while not giving any prominence to the fact that more and more people are paying fees for primary and secondary schools. Publically subsidized private schools; this oxymoron describes the financial incentive behind the exodus of the middleclass from public schooling in Quebec. And in Montreal, it is an emerging societal disaster .
Will Hutton of the Guardian wrote last July, Born poor? Bad luck, you have won last prize in the lottery of life about how the growing inequality in many societies is fueled by the weakening of public institutions. ‘’The rich, dealing themselves out of society’s institutions into ever stronger and sealed ghettoes of their own, become ever more ignorant of the world around them even while they ensure their off-spring scoop life’s prizes’’. He could be describing Quebec when he discusses a major study that singles out private schools as a significant engine of reduced social mobility. ‘Private schools play a pivotal role in repressing mobility; however good state schools become, private schools’ well-understood job is to stay a step ahead and deliver economic and social advantage’’. The advantage that these subsidized schools offer to Quebeckers is a classroom free of ‘problems’ . Excluding kids with learning and behaviour challenges, or the challenges associated with economic deprivation, allows the private classroom to focus on academics. Students who don`t perform well in these schools are expelled. Further, the students flourish with the multiple enrichment activities and a school culture that motivates them to pursue higher education. Our celebrated student leaders, Gabriel Nadeau Dubois, Leo Bureua Blouin and Martine Desjardins are all graduates of these elite schools.
As stated above, one third of Montrealers, take advantage of the network of private secondary schools for their children and in other urban areas of the province it is 20-25%. Parents of many striking students paid $20,000-$40,000 over five years of secondary education in exclusive schools. This gave them an advantage over everyone else in the climb to post-secondary education. And remember, these schools get 50% -60% of their funding from the taxpayer.
The systemic inequality entrenched in this privileged track to post-secondary education has to be part of any honest, progressive discussion and future reform of education in Quebec. This is particularly urgent if you are claiming that increasing university fees is reducing access for the less privileged members of society. The more complete truth is that the ‘less privileged ‘ in Quebec are being culled out of the system, long before university.
The historical origins of this system are important to understand. The Catholic Church had long been the main provider of education to francophone Quebeckers. When the public system was established in the 1950s, compromises included giving subsidies to church- run schools which in turn were allowed to charge a modest tuition. Many of these ‘colleges ’ no longer have priests and nuns as teachers, but they have maintained their entitlement to subsidies and many other secular schools have been created within this specific category. What was originally a modus vivendi with the Church, has expanded into a veritable marketplace of schools where education has become a private commodity rather than a public good.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that for over a decade, the Fraser Institute has been paying for an influential ranking of schools in Quebec . It is in neoliberal heat over the predictable numbers: private schools that select their students for academic skill ‘win’ the top ranks. A handful of enriched public school schools that select their students for academic skill (created to slow the exodus to the private sector) come close second. All other private schools come in third position, close enough to the top rankings to tempt middleclass parents. And regular public schools are at the bottom, really far down at the bottom. Since these rankings have been published, enrollment in private schools has increased by another 7% in Montreal. And there is more and more failure in the public school . Although the connection is rarely made, close to 95% of Quebec`s off the chart drop out numbers (35% of boys do not graduate) come from the public school system where the absence of the middleclass has damaged the culture of achievement.
The subsidy of $4000 per student from the government to a network of 290 private schools is more or less matched by a tuition of $3500-$5000. A small number of these schools serve a special needs clientele and there is also a small unsubsidized network of posh schools like you find in all major Canadian cities serving the really wealthy 5%. They cost a $10,000 or more. The schools that are doing damage to the public system are the subsidized private schools with an academic vocation. They are skimming 30% of the population out of the public system in Montreal and up to 20% in other urban areas. They are very affordable to a middleclass family with a couple of kids. As more and more ordinary francophone [i]middleclass families choose these schools, the public school weakens further, standards go down, pushing even more families to private schools.
This capacity of the middle class to opt out of the public education system is a catastrophe for public education. However, I do not expect to see 100,000 people protesting against this two tiered system. And yet it is one never-addressed explanation for the highest dropout rates in Canada.[ii] The public school needs the achieving children of the middle-classes in its classrooms as positive leaders. Research shows the importance of peer group motivation in school success. My fifteen years of experience as a public high school teacher demonstrated this to me every, single day. And public schools also need the political capital of their middleclass parents who, as influential stakeholders, have the ear of teachers, principals and most importantly government. They also contribute to the flourishing of school communities with their confident advocacy, their volunteering, their contacts in the arts, science and corporate sectors which circulate back into the enrichment and extra-curricular activities of a school. Both this vital political influence and the cultural capital of the middle class are proportionately lower in the public school.
A very distinct feature of the road to university in Quebec begins when students are 11 years old, and I don`t need to explain the role of socio economics in determining outcomes at this age. Right now, close to 50% of all 11 year olds in Montreal are preparing to write several 4 hour exams over the next few weekends. This competitive and anti-pedagogical ordeal is necessary to secure a spot in either a private school or an enriched public school for next year, Grade 7, when high school begins. The children cram during the summer and some even pay to go to Cram Day camps to get an edge. It is more than a little ironic that in order for my daughter to pass an admission exam to a good public high school, I have paid $10,000 to send her for 3 years to a private primary. These exams are essential to the selection of the most academically prepared students – and the exclusion of others. They are incidentally also an important source of funds for schools which charge a non-refundable $50-$100 for each student who wants to write the entrance exam. Popular schools raise $50,000-$100,000 for their coffers during exam season.
Another important source of funding for private schools is their foundations which have charitable accreditation. Parents get tax receipts for concentrating even more of their wealth into their children`s school. In a typical distortion of a ‘progressive’ taxation system, foundations recirculate at least 50 million dollars [iii]a year into private schools every year. And because these parents and also the loyal alma mater of these private schools are often the wealthiest 20-30% of the region, many will have ties to the corporate sector and can lobby for even more generous donations. [iv]
For private schools that work with special needs children like my son, foundation money pays for basic and vital services that are not available in the public sector. These are not children who are being groomed for university. For private schools with an academic vocation however and even some elite public schools, this extra cash flow gives them a competitive edge allowing them to construct sports facilities and auditoriums, repair and renovate infrastructure. These advantages stand in grotesque contrast to the infrastructure in public schools. Take the public primary school that closed last year because of mold forcing the chaotic relocation of all its students. Or the public schools in poor neighbourhoods that have put up with portable classrooms for years. I think of Amina Hass’s talking about the ‘’disgusting violence’’ of any architecture that designates social inequalities.
I admit that as I walked around one of Montreal’s best public French high schools for which my daughter is writing an entrance exam, I had a spasm of doubt. It is a desolate physical environment – paint and plaster chipping, boarded up windows, poor lighting, a gymnasium from the 1950s, no music program, no theatre program, small computer lab in the dingy cramped basement. Compare that to the private schools to which all my daughter`s classmates are applying – the glossy brochures reveal abundant sports facilities, or a renovated grand entrances, the state of the art technology and science labs, the just-so lighting and beautiful libraries, a cornucopia of extra-curricular programs– it`s all a little surreal, grossly unfair, and tuition is only $3800. The taxpayer covers the rest. How could these massive discrepancies be allowed in a modern, just society like Quebec ? And after 6 months of mass demonstrations for justice in education, why is no one is talking about it?
The silence suggests a taboo about acknowledging a class entitlement. Ca arrange la classe moyenne, and it has given us an easy pass out of the complex challenges of public education particularly in urban areas. The growing role of the private sector in education is cast as ‘a choice’ – as though education, the heart of our democracy and societal well-being, the most important equaliser of opportunity and the biggest expenditure after health in our budget, is a ‘choice’ that only concerns the ‘consumer’.
Everyone noticed the anarcho-panda and the banana man at our demonstrations. And of course the good looking naked peoploe. It seems there are very few who saw the huge elephant lumbering at our side. In spite of the mobilising and success of the Carré Rouge movement, there is no printemps érable for our public schools in sight.
[iv] The CEO of Hydro was criticized for faciliating a gift of a $250,000 to his alma mater, Notre Dame in 2009