||Volume 25, Number 5, March 2013
Privatization and privilege come at a price
#BCED can be, and needs to be a public good, not a private right
By Ryan Cho
For those working, studying, or simply invested in education in British Columbia, there is a sense of change in the air. It is well-recognized that the world is in transformation and has transformed, and that education must develop and evolve to ensure that we have the capacity to work successfully with emerging challenges in the emerging world.
What that evolution should look like is where debate and conflict arises. Much of this conversation focuses on curriculum, assessment, or school structure reform while excluding a question that is even more fundamental—is education a public trust done for the public good, or a private right based on access to personal choice?
For the BC Liberal government, a shift from public to private is an explicit and implicit part of their education mandate. The government’s official “International Education Strategy” aims to increase the number of K–12 international students studying in BC by 50% over the next four years, with each K–12 international student spending approximately $24,370 a year for the opportunity to live and attend school in BC. BC education currently has 34 privately run BC curriculum schools operating outside of Canada, with a further 16 schools awaiting certification. Within the province itself, FTE enrolment in independent schools has increased significantly compared to public schools, something that is documented in reports by the Federation for Independent School Alternatives, the BC Ministry of Education, and the BC Teachers’ Federation. There is also serious discussion about privatizing facilities management and project design in K–12 public schools and post-secondary institutions.
The rising of independent schools and partial privatization of BC’s public education system is framed by its advocates as a positive movement that facilitates student choice, generates new revenue, and reduces costs. However, arguments in support are often cut along ideological lines, don’t always stand up to in-depth analysis, and generally:
- focus on positive outcomes to students who already have degrees of educational privilege, while ignoring the marginalization of students who are at risk.
- are made with an incomplete understanding of the key role public education plays in a functioning democracy.
- ignore that privatizing education exacerbates social and economic inequity, which has negative consequences for everyone regardless of who they are.
- are paired with a misleading narrative of financial scarcity, which can be addressed fairly easily.
Options for the privileged, scarcity for the needy
There is nothing inherently wrong with a person or group offering an additional program or service that supports the needs (learning, physical, or religious) of a student in a way that the public system cannot. Countless young people pay for dance classes, take private music lessons, play league hockey, or participate in science enrichment camps that are meaningful and foster their development and growth. In this context, the ability to choose and access a program that best fits your interests is a good thing. However, “school choice” in BC overwhelmingly refers to the ability to access independent schools or for-profit enrichment with costly tuition fees. Because of this, “choice” is restricted to a privileged few who can afford it, or to middle class families who are willing to financially compromise themselves to participate.
Our attempts to use privatization to make up for revenue lost in underfunding also exclusively caters to the rich.
Whereas privatized education opportunities exclude the majority of BC students, public education as a public good works to improve the opportunities for all students regardless of their background and actively supports the students who need the most help, or who are the most vulnerable.
What is so disturbing about the movement to privatize BC education is that the story of private choice is not just one of enrichment for a privileged minority, but of the marginalization of the poor and middle class through simultaneous cuts to public education. In 2011–12, BC education spending was 15.14% of the provincial budget compared to 19.67% in 2001–02. Class sizes in public schools have increased as a result; special needs class ratios have also increased. When budgets contract, programs set up to support students with learning disabilities and who are at risk are often the first eliminated. The loss of special ed programs because of underfunding have driven major court cases where school districts were sued and found guilty of discrimination against students with special needs for cutting programs that are essential for their success. Arts and elective programs that are important ways students, specifically economically vulnerable students, engage positively with their school are also usually targeted for cuts during budget squeezes.
The move to “expand school choice” combined with the deliberate de-investment in a public service is a technique that renowned lawyer and writer Joel Bakan calls “starve the beast.” A pattern that comes up repeatedly in neoliberal strategy, it happens when a public service is purposely defunded to the point that it degrades, and then free market advocates use indicators of that decline to justify more privatized “solutions.”
A policy of privatization that reinforces inequity amongst BC citizens is not just bad news for the poor or those excluded from privilege. In the long run, it is bad for everyone, rich and poor, and works to erode our capacities as a province, culture, and society.
A public good, not a private right
Rich or poor, privileged or not, everyone in a democratic society is interdependent. Education as a public good recognizes that the success, health, and opportunity available to the most vulnerable have an impact on the well-being of everyone, even the advantaged who might at first appear insulated from the hardships of the poor.
Education has a direct and unique effect on how our governments perform. Democracies are dependent on the presence of a literate, informed, and engaged electorate; citizens must have a working knowledge of how their government and political structures work, feel empowered to participate in the process, and be able to understand and critique policy, all of which are influenced by public education. When these abilities are weak, public policy decisions take a turn for the worse. The more people who are knowledgeable and engaged in our civic processes, the better our governments function, and the better policies we create.
Public education quality is also strongly linked to economic performance. We can only grow or develop industry in areas where our population has skills, training, or capacity. In a changing economic world, if we are unable to change with it, the economy will stagnate and poverty will increase. Higher poverty is correlated with everything from higher crime rates, to shorter lives, and poorer health, all of which cost society both in lost opportunity and government money. However, when the economy is more prosperous and poverty decreases, all of these areas improve.
Privatization increases inequity, and that affects everyone (negatively for the most part)
The privatization of public education contributes to growing inequity in BC, and regardless of who you are, inequity is bad for you, and bad for where you live. Life expectancy, child well-being, and levels of trust all decrease when inequity increases. At the same time, high school dropout rates, violent crimes, mental illness, and stress also increase with inequity. Studies show that these outcomes are connected with the gaps between rich and poor and not with the overall wealth of a country or province. It doesn’t matter how rich a country is as a whole; what matters is how much inequality is there.
Perhaps most shocking is that social mobility decreases significantly when social inequity rises. This is now happening in the USA, where the gap between rich and poor has exploded, and the dream that hard work and education will lift people out of poverty is less and less true. This is a particularly hard thing for North Americans to consider, as the “Canadian and American dream” is based on the idea that our countries provide the opportunity to achieve success through education and hard work regardless of a person’s starting point. The irony is that by defunding and privatizing education, the BC government is transforming a traditional avenue of social mobility into a structure that undermines it by reinforcing inequality.
What we can do about it: addressing the false narrative of scarcity, and working toward equity
Supporters of privatization often tell a story of scarcity when advocating for privatized reforms. Their thinking is that tough times have depleted funding sources, and public services must turn to the private sector for money because there is no way to generate them in the public sphere. However, the current financial shortfall has been created deliberately through policy influenced by ideology, and is avoidable.
While the percentage of BC GDP spent on public education fell from 19.67% to 15.14% over the last 10 years, the BC economy grew by about 4.8% between 2006 and 2009. This gap in actual funding is even worse when you take inflation into account. At the same time, corporate income tax rates in BC are amongst the lowest in North America at around 11%, in some cases close to half of what they are in other parts of the world. Despite the conservative belief to the contrary, studies have shown that lower taxes for the rich and corporations do not correlate with faster economic growth or more jobs.
“…scarcity is not unavoidable; it is as simple and complicated as two more points of GST, which would put every province in this country in a very different position when it comes to funding public education.” – Heather-Jane Robertson
This “scarcity” of funds could be easily addressed with minor tax increases on corporations and high-income earners. The revenue generated from modest tax reforms on these two groups would dramatically improve services, especially for those most in need.
Despite the resistance of many of our political leaders to undertake tax reform like this, several recent studies have highlighted that the majority of Canadians and British Columbians actually support tax increases, and want politicians to take leadership on tackling issues of poverty and inequality.
#BCED needs to be a properly funded public good, and there are things that we can do to make it that again. The upcoming BC provincial election in May 2013 is an opportunity to push the issue. Advocating to electoral candidates and communities that education in BC needs to stay public, and that funding needs to be increased are essential elements, but alone are not enough; they need to be paired with a push for all political parties, regardless of affiliation, to commit to tax reform that allows that vision to be possible.
If this is something that you are concerned about, I implore you to make some noise, contact your MLA candidates, and let them know that this is important to you. Public education, poverty, and inequity are not partisan issues or class issues; they are social issues, and social justice issues that impact everyone. It is time for us to come together, and to act on them.
Ryan Cho, Terry Fox Secondary School, Coquitlam