Quebec Minister of Education Yves Bolduc resigned today, after a short tenure marked by one frighteningly obtuse statement after another.
First he claimed that "no child will die" from funding cuts to school libraries. Next he proposed to remove limits on class size in contract negotiations with the province's teachers, claiming there is "no evidence" that such limits help improve student achievement. Then, in response to the release of an extensive study commissioned by his own ministry demonstrating the failure of the pedagogical reform first implemented back in 2000, he flat out denied the study's results, claiming that it was "too early" to judge.
The most recent outrage came from Bolduc's statement that it was okay for schools to strip-search students, provided it was done "respectfully."
To characterize Bolduc as an incompetent clown in a comedy of errors is a mistake. He is no fool and knows exactly what he is doing.
If it seems he doesn't care about the consequences of his policy proposals for public education, it’s because he doesn't.
An education minister with no vision
In Margaret Thatcher's England, Bolduc would have been referred to as a "dry." The "wets" were those in Thatcher's government ridiculed by the more hard-line conservatives for wetting their pants at the thought of implementing the various Thatcherite policies that would be so harmful to Britain's working class. The "dries" were those unfazed at the thought of harming society's most vulnerable.
Bolduc has no vision for public education, nor does he claim to. He has been given his marching orders from the Finance Ministry and he has loyally executed them.
His resignation may feel good, but he will quickly be replaced by another of the Finance Ministry's foot soldiers.
The problem is far bigger than Bolduc and involves Quebec's entire political class. And though this problem certainly has ideological dimensions, it is far more about interests than ideology. Quebec's elites look after their own interests, and the Liberal Party of Quebec is their primary tool.
In this light Bolduc's various proposals to throw the public education system into chaos with budget cuts and attacks on the working conditions of teachers haven’t been incompetent at all. They quite effectively serve the interests of the wealthiest segment of Quebec society.
Quebec's elites are well aware that they have been feasting on tax cuts for the last 20 years and that these tax cuts, not social spending, are the real cause of the province’s current deficit. They also know that the vast majority of Quebecers would rather see those with plenty make do with a little less than see a decline in the quality of public services or an increase in user fees. Someone has to pay for these tax cuts and the Liberal government is working hard to ensure that it is working-class families and their children who pay, not those who actually benefited from these massive tax cuts.
Not only does slashing funding for public education protect the billions in tax cuts that have been doled out to the rich in recent years, it also protects the generous public subsidies received by the private schools where they send their children to be educated.
There can be no clearer example of the extent to which the Liberal government is beholden to elite interests than the fact that it is leaving these subsidies untouched while imposing extreme austerity on the public system.
Segregation in the education system
A recent campaign launched by La Federation Autonome d'Enseignment illustrates the extent to which these elite schools are like a parasite that feeds on the public system. While Quebec's public schools have suffered nearly a billion dollars in budget cuts over the last ten years, there has been almost no belt tightening for Quebec's 180 private schools, which continued to receive over $500 million in public financing annually. Between 2010 and 2013, while the government was imposing some of its deepest cuts on the public system, these same schools accumulated a budget surplus of over $109 million.
Not only are these schools permitted to refuse admission to students with special needs, resulting in an overrepresentation of such students in the public system, they are also permitted to expel students over the course of the year. Public schools receive no additional funding for absorbing such students until February of the following school year. In 2012-2013 there were 458 such students pushed into the public system without the $740,486 in funding it would normally receive to educate that many students. Public schools were expected to just absorb these students with no additional funding until 18 months later.
There is no pedagogical justification for policies that create such a highly segregated education system. In fact there is plenty of evidence to show that two-tiered education systems have very negative effects on overall student achievement.
The only possible justification for subsidizing private schools, repeated often by the association representing Quebec's private schools, is that such subsidies save government money. The claim is that without public subsidies, which cover 60 per cent of private school tuition, many students would leave private schools for the public system where government is responsible for 100 per cent of the costs.
However, when one adds government funding for student services, transportation, infrastructure and tax credits for religious education and donations to endowment funds, public funding for private education looks like much less of a bargain for government.
La Federation Autonome d'Enseignment estimates that if half of the students currently attending private schools were reintegrated into the public system, government would actually save money. This could be easily achieved by cutting the public subsidies these schools receive.
Devouring public services
The billion dollars in funding cuts over the last decade have already left Quebec's public schools badly underfunded. For government to add more cuts to the public system while private schools continue to accumulate massive surpluses with their generous public subsidies has to be seen for what it is: a deliberate attempt to further privatize Quebec's public education system.
Quebec's private schools spend large sums on marketing each year. However, no amount spent on advertising can equal the effects of a public education system thrown into chaos by budget cuts, ill-conceived policies and labour strife. When the public system is feared, more and more middle-class parents will be willing to squeeze their own family budgets in order to spend the money required for their children to escape the public system.
One need look no further than our neighbor to the south and its broken public system, which has led to an explosion of private charter schools, to see the end result of such a nearsighted vision of public education.
Quebecers need to consider the real possibility that such disastrous consequences are not merely unfortunate by-products of the Liberal Party’s drive to balance its budget, but rather the intended result of a party committed to both transforming the education system according to elite interests and to ensuring that the feast that Quebec's wealthiest citizens have enjoyed for the last 20 years continues at any cost.