The former NSW education minister and now head of the UNSW Gonski Institute, Adrian Piccoli, suggested in recent days Australian governments should fully fund all non-government primary schools.
In an opinion piece published by the Sydney Morning Herald, Piccoli wrote this would fix inequality — as long as non-government schools also stopped charging fees and followed the same enrolment and accountability rules as public schools.
This idea is neither new nor radical. Canada has operated this way for decades and find themselves with an education system far more equitable and much higher performing than Australia.
As a researcher with expertise on the Canadian education system, I think there are several aspects of this claim worth clarifying and examining more closely.
Canada doesn’t fully fund private schools
It’s important to note there is no such thing as “Canadian” education. In Canada, under the terms of the constitution, each province holds the jurisdiction and autonomy to set their own educational policies. So, there is no overarching ministry or agency at the federal level, meaning education policy remains highly decentralised.
Canada remains an outlier, globally, as it does not grant any central body control over education across the country — which comes as a surprise to many.
Funding remains quite complex in all jurisdictions (try to understand how funding formulas work even in Australia!). But to the second point, in Canada, only some (five) of the ten provinces provide partial funding to private schools while in three of the provinces (Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan) Catholic schools are fully funded as part of a separate, but also public, school system.
In Ontario, where I teach, private schools receive no government funding. It should also be noted that, overall, well over 90% of all students across Canada attend public schools.
In short then, Canada as a whole does not provide significant taxpayer dollars to support private schools.
In effect, the idea being put forward — that all primary private schools should be publicly funded and required to abide by certain policies, rules and accountability measures — is essentially the idea of enhancing school choice through something akin to charter schools, which have emerged in Canada and many other countries.
Charter schools in Canada
Charter schools can be best understood as a hybrid of public and private schools.
Though they vary by name and context, the idea of charter schools is to allow private educational providers the opportunity to secure public funding for their schools. In the United States, where charter schools have proliferated, charters can also be run as for-profit entities.
In Canada, only one province, Alberta, allows for charter schools to exist. These schools are fully funded by the government and as such, must abide by the rules and policies set out by the government.
Currently, there are just 13 schools operating, but recent legislation is set for them to expand. Alberta’s charter schools include a school for children who are “academically gifted,” an Indigenous school and a school for children learning English.
While Canada has received its fair share of accolades in recent years — such as appearing in the top ten countries for reading, maths and science in recent PISA tests – such assertions are often based strictly on measures such as standardised testing. Nevertheless, these findings highlight strong outcomes in both educational quality and equity in a country which maintains a robust K-12 public education system.
While there are gaps and room for improvement across all levels and systems, public education remains a public good which is intended to serve the needs of all. Funding for private forms of education and the false promises of “school choices” are often misguided efforts which actually continue to drive educational inequalities and inequities.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to educational success and no silver bullet to enacting effective educational reform. But supporting local, universal and accessible public schools still provides the best opportunity to meet the needs of all students.