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When the issue of public school funding rears its head, as it did this week with news the Vancouver School Board had shortlisted 12 schools for possible closing, the conversation invariably turns to the issue of private school funding.

Why are my tax dollars, which should be directed to public education, instead being spent to send students to tony, elite, ivy-clad schools for children of the wealthy?

Okay, so they're not all elite nor ivy-clad, and they're not attended only by children of the wealthy, but that image pops into my head without fail every time. That, and clean-cut kids with good skin and teeth wearing tidy uniforms.

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Education Minister Mike Bernier told me this week that the province doesn't fund private schools – it funds students whose parents may choose to send them to a private school. "We fund opportunities for students and those opportunities are chosen by parents," he said.

You see the difference.

"If people choose to send their child to an independent school, they have already paid taxes toward the public school even though their child has not gone there, and that's a choice that parents make," he said.

Funding students and not schools, I thought, was a novel argument, but it's true. The funding follows the students who get up to 50 per cent of the per-student grant allocated to public schools.

Someone might want to tell that to the good folks at the website ourkids.net – a clearing house of information on private schools – which incidentally reinforces the stereotypical notions I conjure when the words "private school" are uttered.

According to the website, "British Columbia recognizes the distinct advantages of private schools and therefore funds many of them."

When I suggested to the minister that the choice to send a child to private school was based on a family's ability to pay the tuition, which can easily top $20,000 annually, he didn't argue the point, but suggested 'twas ever thus. "We have a legislative formula that has been put in place for several decades."

That funding formula has in fact been in place since 1977, through Social Credit, NDP and Liberal governments, and there is no sign that it will change – not even with the election of an NDP government. No one wants to touch it.

My suggestion that wealthy families could more easily take advantage of private schools prompted reaction online and elsewhere, with some explaining why they made the choice to go the private route. Higher-quality education, more individual attention to students and smaller class sizes were among the reasons cited.

Which takes us back to the potential closing of 12 Vancouver schools. The province insists that those that can't be brought up to 95 per cent of their capacity should be considered for closing.

Where does the 95-per-cent figure come from? "It is something we're working toward," Mr. Bernier said. He explained that the figure was enshrined in an memorandum of understanding signed with the district two years ago. School board trustee Patti Bacchus says her board wasn't given a choice. She says the ultimatum from the province was to sign or be denied dollars for seismic upgrades.

But surely 95 per cent wasn't a number picked out of the air. There must be research or something – anything – that links the figure with improved educational outcomes. Quality education is, after all, the government's stated goal. When I pressed the point, the minister talked about "using taxpayers' dollars wisely" and "making sure that we have great programming." It's clear this is more about efficiency than anything else.

I couldn't help but wonder what the public system might look like if the $358-million granted to private schools were kept in the public system. It might still mean closing schools but would it bring back the teacher-librarians, resource teachers, and educational assistants who have been lost? Would it mean that kids spent more time at school since cost-saving measures like district-wide closing days and lengthy holiday breaks could be done away with?

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I guess the question is, do you strive to create a public school system of the highest quality, where every student is welcome regardless of their family's ability to pay? Or do you accept that independent schools offer something the public system can't – something that is worth it to all us to subsidize.

And the minister is right that sending your kid to private school is a choice. For a wealthy family, the choice may not cause a lot of pain. It may in fact be tradition. For a family without means, it might mean that someone needs to pick up an extra job and make other sacrifices. And for a truly poor family?

Well thank goodness there's the public system.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 88.1 FM and 690 AM in Vancouver.

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