Will Quebec put an end to two-tier education?

The province could stop subsidizing private education and put $500-million back into public schools.


Imagine the uproar if Quebec announced that it would spend $500-million a year to subsidize medical tests at private laboratories. Need a CT scan? Why wait for one from the overworked public system when you can not only jump the queue, but Quebec will pay 60 to 70 per cent of the bill?

While this would be great news for private labs, whose patient lists would swell, it would create an even more inequitable system than we have now. Our “public health system” currently allows those who can afford private tests or who are lucky enough to have insurance — or desperate enough to dig deep into their pockets — to enter the healthcare fast-lane. Subsidies would just add more express lanes.

“Would you like an MRI with that sir?” (ka-ching) “Have a nice day.”

The health minister in this fictional scenario would argue that he’s actually saving money, paying just 70 per cent of what it might cost if the patient used the public system. “Why, if all these patients got tested at hospitals, it would cost us even more!” he would say, under the ridiculous assumption that people who use private labs would only do so if they were subsidized.


As the headline on this column has no doubt revealed already, I’m not talking about healthcare here but about Quebec’s current practice of subsidizing private education, making  the province, in the words of its own Conseil supérieur de l’éducation, the most “unequal” in the country.

The Québec solidaire party wants to scrap the practice and instead put the $500-million back in public education. The QS motion being debated — and likely defeated — today (April 13) proposes “the National Assembly ask the government to stop funding private schools and to end the two-tier education system. That the National Assembly call on the government to ensure that state funding fosters fairness in the distribution of resources, equal opportunities for pupils and the quality of the public education network.”

Predictably, education minister Sébastien Proulx made the ridiculous argument that if you put the 124,000 private school students in the public system, “it would cost us a lot more, it would be over $ 1-billion.”

I don’t know where Proulx went to school, but his math is as bad as his logic. Although an end of subsidies would certainly put a dent in private school enrolment, it would hardly be its death knell. In Ontario, where there are no public subsidies for private education, enrolment actually grew in the last decade, going from 109,904 in 2000 to 120,198 in 2012 (and from 4.9 per cent of enrolment to 5.6 per cent) (Fraser Institute).

It grew twice as fast in Quebec, however, where the heavy subsidization helped push private school enrolment from 9.4 to 12.6 per cent of the school-age population in the same period.

So while public school enrolment will no doubt rise under the QS proposal, the only way Quebec would “lose” financially is if more than half of private school students switched to the public system.


The argument against the current system isn’t just economic, of course. As the government’s Conseil supérieur argues quite persuasively in a 100-page report tabled last fall, the current system — despite the subsidies — reinforces inequalities by disproportionately reserving enriched education programs for students from more affluent backgrounds.

The Conseil notes that only seven per cent of Quebec private school students come from families with an income of less than $50,000, vs. 72 per cent with incomes of over $100,000. So the subsidies mainly benefit those who can best afford private education and help reinforce a system that already tends to create economically homogenous school environments.

The current system creates inequalities of opportunity by adopting a “quasi-market logic” that allows the wealthiest and the best-informed to shop around, the report notes. So rather than being a social equalizer, as envisaged in Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, the system perpetuates class distinctions.

“The status quo threatens the gains of the last 50 years,” the report concludes, because our schools fail to offer all students “the same opportunity to develop their potential” because of huge disparities in resources, among other faults.

Eliminating the private education boondoggle won’t happen of course, because most the the elite in this province, including in the National Assembly, have a vested interest in perpetuating their perks.

Even Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, who is leading the charge to eliminate the funding, went to private school. The QS star candidate, who is looking to replace Françoise David in the Gouin riding, attended the prestigious collège Regina Assumpta in Montreal. Reporters tried to trip up the young political star Wednesday, asking him if he would have preferred going to public school.

Pointing out that he was only 12 at the time, GND said he wasn’t exactly in a position back then to weigh the socio-political pros and cons.

At 26, however, the former student leader is ready to make the choice for the next generation by pushing to eliminate this artifact of Quebec’s former elite school system.

Though some are accusing him of hypocrisy, the real hypocrisy is coming from those fighting to preserve their privilege. ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.