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Private-versus-public debate enters school scrap

A Chilliwack parent is challenging the government to claw back private school funding in light of the public school labour strife.

Judi Chalmer, mom of a kindergarten-aged child and former educational assistant, was "floored" to learn private schools get partial funding from taxpayer coffers.

"I am appalled to find that our tax dollars are subsidizing the private/independent school system at the rate it is while clearly the public school system is falling apart," Chalmer told The Progress.

"They're getting double funding, they're getting public money and private money."

The provincial government funds between 35 and 50 per cent of full-time equivalent students for independent schools. In the 2012-13 school year, that totaled $295 million.

The funding is solely for operating costs; it does not include land acquisition, building construction, or school equipment.

Still, Chalmer said that money could be better used in the public school system.

"Public education needs more funding, but the government keeps saying they have no money," she said.

When the Ministry of Education started funding private schools in 1977, there were 156 such schools. There are now 350 schools with 76,000 students enrolled. Comparatively, the public sector has 560,000 students province wide.

Of the eight independent schools in Chilliwack, 1,782 students were enrolled in the 2012-13 school year.

"It's taking more of taxpayers' money away from the public school system," said Chalmer.

"Clearly the way funding is being disbursed isn't working and the government needs to be proactive in changing it. And this [cutting private school funding] is one way of offering more funds to the public system."

But Peter Froese, executive director of the Federation of Independent Schools Associations, argues that to do so would actually be more taxing on the public school system.

"People haven't thought through the numbers," he said. "From an economic perspective, it doesn't make financial sense. If we withdrew funding for independent schools, many of our schools would have to close and those students would end up in the public sector. It would cost the taxpayer more to cut the funding for independent schools than it would to continue providing the funding at the 50 and 35 per cent rate."

The suggestion to cut private school funding isn't new, said Froese.

"During a labour strife, this is the time when the question of funding is usually raised," he said.

Labour strife in the public sector is also a time when "enrollment grows most significantly" in independent schools, said Froese.

In 2012, enrollment at private schools grew by over four per cent province wide, compared to the one and two per cent increase it usually averages.

"Quite honestly, when there's labour strife, parents from public schools tend to look to independent schools as a place where the learning of their children will not be interrupted," said Froese.

"The issue is real, we all want to educate kids and we want to do it well, but I think the bottom line is it's more than just money that needs to be solved here."

kbartel@theprogress.com

twitter.com/schoolscribe33

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