Austerity by any other name would smell as foul

An edited version of this article ran in the June 11th edition of the Montreal Gazette under the title “A bad budget for education

By Robert Green

There’s a very good reason the Couillard government wants to avoid using the word “austerity”. The word has become associated with a villainous act that evokes the names of such detested figures as Ebenezer Scrooge and the Sheriff of Nottingham; the act of taking from the poor to give to the rich.

However, avoiding the use of the word austerity may not be enough to prevent Quebecers from seeing the villainous truth behind the recent Liberal budget.

The Leitão budget is clearly moving Quebec in the direction of Choice #2

The Leitão budget is clearly moving Quebec in the direction of Choice #2

Nowhere is this more true than with respect to the Leitão budget’s implications for education. While Quebec’s wealthy will see no change whatsoever to the generous subsidies they receive to send their children to elite private schools, the province’s most needy students will be asked to make do with less.

The Leitão budget has extremely serious implications for Quebec’s public schools. It imposes cuts of $150 million for 2014-15, restrains growth in spending to a paltry 2.2 percent for the years following and freezes hiring for administrative posts.

The reason these cuts are so serious is that they are being imposed at a time when Quebec’s public education system is already in crisis.

School boards are in financial crisis having already been cut to the bone thanks to the $640 million in cuts since 2010. Some have resorted to running deficits while others have sought to raise school taxes. The notion that school boards still have bureaucratic fat that can be cut without affecting services to students is contradicted by both the school boards themselves and public sector unions.

Schools are in crisis due to the growing number of special needs students – a crisis exacerbated by a large and growing private school system that is permitted to use entrance exams to filter out such students, causing them to flood into public schools. The spending cuts mean that there will be even less money for psychologists, child care workers, speech therapists and drug councillors. In other words, fewer resources that can offer children with special needs the fighting chance they deserve.

The teaching profession in Quebec is also in crisis. Quebec’s teachers are the lowest paid in Canada with arguably the most difficult working conditions. In the twelve years prior to the current collective agreement we saw our real wages reduced by 10.5 percent. Meanwhile the burn-out rate and the use of long-term disability by teachers has been steadily rising over the last decade. As a result Quebec’s teachers are younger and less experienced than teachers in other provinces.

Continuing to degrade the teaching profession further may seem like a means of saving money but in fact it is transferring costs onto students. Ultimately it is an entire generation of Quebec’s youth that will pay for this austerity by having to cope with an education system incapable of attracting and retaining the best and the brightest teachers.

But in Couillard’s brave new Quebec belt-tightening is not for everyone. Wealthy families who choose to opt their children out of Quebec’s public system will not see any reductions in the government subsidies that pay 60 percent of their costs for private school. Nor will they see any reductions to the tax-credits they receive for donations to private school endowment funds.

While the private schools themselves have had their budget for student services cut by 14 million and their transportation budget cut by 13 million, the funding they receive for such things is still incredibly generous compared to other provinces. Even after these cuts private schools will receive 550 million annually for student services alone.

The private school system is fond of claiming that the public subsidies which cover 60 percent of private school tuition actually save government money because otherwise government would pay for 100 percent of the cost. However, when one adds government funding for student services and transportation, government subsidies for infrastructure and tax credits for religious education and donations to endowment funds, public funding for private education looks like much less of a cost saving measure for government. The Federation Autonomne de l’Enseignment estimates that if half of the students currently attending private schools were reintegrated into the public system, government would actually save money.

Using tax-payer dollars for subsidies that allow the rich to opt out of public education is highly questionable public policy in the best of economic times. To maintain such subsidies at a time when the neediest students are being asked to make such serious sacrifices is downright offensive.

If the Couillard government wants to avoid the stigma associated with the word ‘austerity’, it is not language but policy that needs to change. Demanding sacrifices of the most needy while continuing to subsidize those with plenty is public policy that deserves to be stigmatized regardless of its name.

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