Private schools are not subsidized

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Appeared in the Vancouver Sun

“The construction of narratives,” wrote the late Neil Postman, “is a major business of our species.” The New York cultural critic, writing in a 2000 book, mused about how difficult it was to move people from myths to facts.

Skip ahead to the 21st century, and a myth that needs an empirical reality check: Taxpayers subsidize private schools.

This tale is told by many, often those wedded to a one-size-fits-all approach to education. For example, the British Columbia Teachers Federation claims the province is “subsidizing private schools with public funds.” In Ontario, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation bellows that “there should be no provincial government subsidies” for private schools.”

The subsidy claim is bunk. Just because a government cuts a cheque, that doesn’t mean someone or some entity is subsidized. By that impossibly loose definition, everything done by a government counts as a subsidy. That includes buying paper clips or paying the salaries of bureaucrats.

When governments pay the salary of a civil servant, labour is exchanged for compensation. When governments buy computers from a manufacturer, a product is purchased. When taxpayers compensate doctors for operating on a sick child, they just bought a medical procedure. No one is subsidized in any of these scenarios.

So what is a subsidy?

Obvious examples: When a government cuts a cheque to a corporation, not for some service or item but simply as a grant; when governments overpay for something—labour, for example; when taxpayers are forced to pay above the market price, as in how the federal government demanded that new military ships be built in Canada even when the needed vessels could be obtained more cheaply offshore.

Those are all subsidies—when governments overpay, or when tax dollars are given out but not for any product or service in return.

Now tack back to the claim that private schools are subsidized. Payments from the taxpayer treasury to independent schools could be a subsidy—if the cheques are “money for nothing” (as the old Dire Straits song put it). Or if a provincial education ministry overpays private schools for a child’s education relative to public schools.

But this is the exact opposite of what occurs.

To understand why, first consider these independent school enrollment figures (compiled earlier this year by my colleagues from available 2009/10 data): British Columbia (69,455); Alberta (27,426); Saskatchewan (1,593); Manitoba (14,172); Ontario (111,168); Quebec (125,913); New Brunswick (990); Nova Scotia (2,949); Prince Edward Island (206); Newfoundland and Labrador (830).

Add it all up and 354,702 students across Canada were taught, coached, comforted, graded and educated in independent/private schools.

And what did it cost the taxpayer to educate 354,702 students in those schools?

Eligible independent schools in British Columbia receive per-pupil government operating grants between 35 and 50 per cent of those granted to nearby public schools. In Alberta, the figure ranges from 60 per cent to 70 per cent; in Saskatchewan, 50 per cent to 80 per cent; in Manitoba, children in private schools  receive 50 per cent of the taxpayer funding received by their counterparts in the public school system.

In Quebec, per student funding for private schools tops out at about 60 per cent of that sent to a nearby public school. In Ontario and Atlantic Canada, private schools receive no taxpayer funding. Zilch.

Anyone who says taxpayers subsidize private schools is wrong on the arithmetic. Far from being subsidized, independent schools offer a discount to taxpayers to educate Canadian kids. The math is not complex. To bring another 354,701 kids into the public education system would cost more, not less. Taxpayers would immediately fund each student at the 100 per cent public school cost.

For example, last year, Ontario’s auditor general wrote that “private schools in effect either save the taxpayers $1 billion annually or enable the (Education) Ministry to allocate this money to other education priorities.”

Propagating the false narrative, that taxpayers subsidize private schools, is like calling a 50 per cent discount on a dress a swindle—not a price reduction. In reality, as long as the shopper isn’t charged an above-market premium, no subsidy exists. They’re getting a bargain, and they know it. It’s the same with taxpayers and private schools.

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