Public Aid Hurts Canadian Private Schools, Report Suggests

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A program of public aid to private schools in British Columbia appears to have had a "profoundly" negative effect on the schools, and could ultimately make them indistinguishable from public schools, according to an American researcher who has been studying the subject since 1978.

Variety of Problems

In a report containing preliminary findings of a study he is conducting with funding from the National Institute of Education (nie), Donald A. Erickson said that the Canadian province's program has brought a variety of problems to participating private schools; among them:

Increased regulation by the province, with accompanying paperwork.

Less enthusiasm among students for their teachers, classes, and school, and loss of the students' sense that their schools are in some way ''special."

Less responsiveness by the schools to parents, and more to the province, and less involvement in school affairs by parents who begin to see the schools as belonging to the government, not to them.

Teachers who are much more concerned about pay and fringe benefits than before; the researcher calls this a "union mentality."

A dependence on the new funds that could result in financial disaster for the schools if they are removed.

Mr. Erickson, the author a number of research studies in the field of private education, is director of the Institute for the Study of Private Schools and a professor in the graduate school of education at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Erosion of Freedom Feared

The researcher fears, he said, that the freedom of the independent schools eventually may be so eroded by the program that they will "either give up the pretense of being independent or rebel against the aid and face financial disaster."

"I would say that a program like British Columbia's could very well spell the end of the distinctive qualities private schools are purported to have," he said.

Public funding to private schools in British Columbia is awarded under the Independent Schools Support Act. The law authorizes the province to give two levels of aid to private schools--one at 9 percent of the operating costs of public schools in the same district, the other at 30 percent. In order to receive the higher level of aid, a school must agree to be regulated by the state in several ways.

The aid is allocated on a per-pupil average attendance basis. The majority of participating schools, which must be at least three years old to participate, have taken the larger amount of aid.

By the time the law was passed in 1977, every other Canadian province except British Columbia already supplied some form of public aid to private schools.

In other countries, including Britain, Australia, and the Netherlands, such aid exists. In Australia, for example, in some cases public funding of private schools is "virtually 100 percent," Mr. Erickson said. "There isn't quite the tendency there of giving a dollar and then clobbering the school with regulation."

First Opportunity

Mr. Erickson's study of British Columbia's program, which he said is the first opportunity a researcher has had to do a comparative analysis of the effects of public aid, is not yet complete. He is seeking funding for a third survey of "social climate" in the schools to compare with data gathered in 1978 and 1980. An analysis of the politics that led to the passage of the bill and the politicization of schools that may have followed is forthcoming.

He also must compare the Canadian data with similar data he has gathered from public and private schools in Tacoma, Wash., and San Francisco. Until these comparisions and analyses are performed, his preliminary findings about the negative effects of public support on private schools "cannot be regarded as conclusive," he said.

Mr. Erickson has looked at about 60 of the independent schools--both sectarian and non-sectarian--that are participating in the program. Altogether, some 140 private schools are involved. Last year the province gave an average of $600 per pupil to the schools.

But along with the funding, Mr. Erickson notes, has come increased obligation to the province.

Each independent school participating in the program falls under the regulation of a provincially-appointed "inspector of independent schools," and must establish a curriculum with the same "minimum instructional-time requirements" found in the public schools. (The schools receiving the 9-percent level are not subject to the same regulations.)

The school must also cooperate with an external evaluating committee, and must submit to the inspector a list of teachers (including a description of their "educational qualifications and responsibilities.")

Teachers in participating schools must also be certified within five years under the direction of a special "independent-schools teacher certification committee."

Participating schools have also had to follow a provincial "Administrative Handbook," which specifies the number of minutes per day that must be devoted to various subjects.

Schools also become part of the province's "learning assessment program," which requires the students to take the same standardized tests as public school students.

Mr. Erickson is not sure how much additional cost the schools have incurred meeting such requirements. An analysis of these and other questions about the economic impact of the program is being developed by Stephen Easton of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

The program came into being over the strong opposition of the British Columbia Teachers' Federation, a union representing all the public-sector teachers in the province; it strongly opposes any public aid to private schools. The union said the program:

Puts public and private schools in direct competition for the same provincial funding sources.

Allocates public funds to "proselytize, to the exclusion of others, any one religion," according to a position statement on the matter.

Allows some private schools to receive more public aid than some public schools, some of which receive only 10 percent of their total operating costs from the province.

Allows private schools to contin-ue selective admission policies even while receiving public funds.

The bctf refused to cooperate with Mr. Erickson in any way while he was conducting the study.

Mr. Erickson said he is puzzled about the bstf's hostility to his study. "I can't put a finger on it. [A fellow researcher] thinks they're so angry about the aid that they had to rail at somebody."

Union Uncooperative

The union urged members not to allow the researchers in the schools and to return Mr. Erickson's questionnaires without responding.

According to the union's executive director, Robert M. Buzza, "We did some research on Erickson's background, and it appeared that he had a preconceived view that the public funding was a good thing."

Mr. Erickson, though, has evidence suggesting that the effects of the aid, especially on the "social climate" in the schools, is quite negative.

"Social climate," the researcher explains, describes the general atmosphere of interpersonal relations among teachers, students, administrators and parents that he considers vital to a school's educational quality.

The comparative surveys he conducted in 1978 and 1980 show, Mr. Erickson said, that "responsiveness to parents" (as perceived by parents) has declined dramatically. "Teacher commitment" (also as perceived by parents) has declined to a similar degree.

With the exception of teachers and administrators, most respondents gave "negative" answers to questions about the program's effect on "social climate." But teachers, most of whom, according to Mr. Erickson, received "exceptionally large salary increases as a result of the program," reported greater enthusiasm for their jobs and an overall improvement in morale in the second survey.

Very little of the aid, Mr. Erickson said, has been "passed through'' to non-public-school parents in the form of reduced tuition charges. In Catholic schools, he said, the funds have been used almost entirely to increase teacher salaries.

In schools that were on the verge of financial collapse, the aid brought "an enormous sense of relief" that Mr. Erickson said may have turned into a dependency in many cases. Several schools, he said, would probably close quickly if the aid were stopped.

Schools that were in less precarious financial condition before the aid have used it somewhat more cautiously, he said, using it to buy new equipment, expand programs, broaden course offerings, and for "a little of this and a little of that, rather than as the main source of funds for any critical component of the operating budget."

Only the most affluent schools have used the aid entirely for scholarships, according to the researcher.

Mr. Erickson speculates that because the financial incentives may not be great enough for the program to encourage lower-income parents to move their children into independent schools for purely financial reasons, it may create a pattern in which only parents who are greatly concerned about their children's education will make the switch from public to private schools.

'Unthinking' Parents

He has identified a type of parents he calls the "unthinking." Such parents, he said, are characterized by a lack of concern about their children's school and little interest in what they do there.

Such parents are found almost exclusively in the public-school sector, he said, and he believes it is unlikely that British Columbia's program will "do anything to relieve public schools of the virtually exclusive burden of educating children of parents of this type."

Mr. Erickson suspects that the social climate that distinguishes independent schools from public schools has "deteriorated" because of the inflow of public money.

He argues that the financial jeopardy the aid alleviates often contrib-utes positively to the climate of independent schools--conversely, the loss of that climate of jeopardy weakens the parents' sense that they "own" the schools.

When public money is not available, he said, everyone involved in the school has an additional incentive to perform well. Because the survival of the school is directly dependent on satisfied clientele, teachers and administrators are more responsive to parents.

"When a private school is short of money," he said, "it appears that people pull together as a result. Teachers, viewing the financial sacrifices of parents and the conscientiousness of students, redouble their efforts."

In Canada, a nation whose constitution does not contain a "separation clause" like that of the U.S. Constitution, public funding of private schools is commonplace.

But could such a funding program ever exist in this country?

"I think the program is politically possible in the U.S.," said Mr. Erickson. "There were several major measures providing state aid directly to private schools passed in the late '60's and early '70's.

"The best-known were in New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. These were individually struck down in the courts."

The courts ruled against these plans, he noted, on the grounds they would lead to impermissible entanglement in religion by the state.

At the present time, according to Mr. Erickson, there are no new direct-aid plans in the works because of "the constitutional dilemma."

Mr. Erickson is reluctant to speculate about the possible effects of tuition tax credits based on the negative findings from his study, but said, "If you starting giving aid indirectly by giving parents tax credits you couldn't be so sure of the consequences. I would still be concerned, though. We have a strong tendency in the U.S. to follow funding with control."

Vol. 01, Issue 15

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