[Opinion] The École ensemble movement has only just completed its reform

As we know, secondary education in Quebec is a two-level system, divided between the private, subsidized and selective network and the public network, which concentrates a large proportion of students with learning difficulties. With the selection of the best students in the private sector and the concentration of students in difficulty in the same classes in the public sector, school segregation arises which contributes to early school leaving, to the difficulties of retaining teachers in the public network and which harms to equality and opportunities.

To remedy this situation, many have proposed to abolish the subsidies to the private network, as the study costs are currently subsidized at 75%. Without government subsidies, tuition in private schools would rise dramatically, sparking a rush into the public sector. In theory, this new mix would benefit students in difficulty without harming the better performing students.

This solution is impractical because it ignores the difficulty of changing existing institutions and overcoming resistance to reform. We don’t know how to take new students from the private sector into the public network, or what to do with private schools that have emptied a large portion of their students. Because the abolition of subsidies is precisely aimed at reducing their ‘customers’, the abolition of subsidies is provoking stubborn opposition from private schools, which manage to arouse the fear of parents.

It is suicide for all political parties to incur the wrath of parents, many and influential, who send their children to a private school. The elimination of subsidies would force parents whose children attend private schools to pay a significant increase in tuition fees or else send their children to public schools, the one they have avoided.

The solution proposed by École ensemble brilliantly circumvents these difficulties. It proposes a gradual transition over a period of six years to 100% financing of the private network. In return, this new ‘contracted’ private network will no longer be able to select students. In addition, a choice of a specific course would be offered to all students. Admission to schools would be determined by geographic areas created to diversify the socio-economic level of parents.

Private schools would maintain their own governance and remain independent. Their opposition, like that of the parents, would diminish, as access to private schools is by no means restricted (it would actually increase). Sure, some will prefer to keep the principle of student selection to favor their own child or their own school, but this selfish argument remains difficult to hold in public space.

With the École ensemble plan, parents who want to stay private (and who can afford it) can still get away. Private schools will be able to become “unconventional” and continue to select students, without receiving government subsidies. In short, Brébeuf will always be Brébeuf.

This proposal is superior to all others. It is politically much more realistic than abolishing subsidies because it would provoke less opposition. It would significantly reduce inequalities between public and private schools, more than if we were to just abolish entrance exams and maintain subsidies at current levels. The children of more affluent parents do indeed do better in the entrance exams and have the means to pay the school fees.

Moreover, École Ensemble calculates that the reform will cost the treasury nothing. If we assume that about half of private sector students turn to the unconventional network despite doubling or tripling tuition fees, the reform would actually generate more revenue than expenditure. It is likely that fewer students will decide to remain in the non-conventional private sector, which would increase the cost to the state. The fact remains that the direct costs of this reform to public finances remain ludicrous compared to the social progress made in the medium term.

Reform proposals deserve to be discussed. In primary school, the division into geographically defined school areas seems very logical, but is this the best solution in secondary school? Isn’t it likely that these school districts are unfair or contribute to increasing property values ​​in certain neighborhoods with better schools? It might be relevant that some of the randomly selected students from the enrolled students could come from outside the geographic school area. Thus, parents would still have the chance to send their child to their preferred school, further limiting their opposition to the reform.

Frankly, it’s hard for me to imagine a government policy reform that would further reduce socio-economic inequalities in Quebec in the medium term, especially at such a low cost. All parties committed to improving our education network and reducing inequalities should defend this in the next elections.

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