Have we given up on public school?

Across the street from my house sits an empty brick building that used to brim with youthful energy. It’s a closed public elementary school now sitting vacant and empty, a victim of provincial budget cuts due to declining enrollment.

2 blocks away, a private elementary school is bursting at the seams with students, desperate to find bigger digs for their burgeoning population. It seems that this trend of declining enrollment does not extend to private schools.

A recent study by the province of Ontario (reported in the Globe and Mail) shows that enrollment in private schools is booming.

The study, titled “Ontario’s Private Schools: Who chooses them and why?” and released last May, notes that private school enrollment in the province grew to nearly 6 per cent of students in 2006, from 1.9 per cent in 1960.

Are we giving up on public education?

Neither of my kids are in school yet. But I worry about this, not only as a parent, but as a member of society. 6% of students represents a huge number of kids and parents who have chosen, for whatever reasons, to opt out of public education. And, if the numbers in the article are correct and consistent, if it does indeed cost $15,000 per year for private education, then you can bet that the population of private schools is predominantly upper/upper middle class. A massive block of high socio-economic people disengaged from the public system means that those in lower socio-economic classes become over represented in the public system. AS a gross generalization, lower socio-economic status is related to higher rates of challenging students, which places an increasing burden on limited public sector resources.

It’s a vicious circle. Take out the people who have the most resources to solve some of the problems in the public sector and leave those with the least resources available to struggle. Which then makes the private route seem even more attractive to those left in the public system.

I could be way off base here. I am not a social scientist, or an expert on primary education and demographics. I’m drawing broad conclusion based on anecdote and a single article. But my thoughts have been confirmed by a number of parents I speak with who are now beginning to ask themselves the question: private or public? And it is distressing to hear so many choose private.

So again I ask. Are we giving up on public education? Or is my perception being clouded by the fact that I am now just starting to examine these issues because my kids are getting closer to school age? Perhaps this is the way it has always been and I am again a victim of that myopic parent trap where things that have been a certain way for a long time suddenly have relevance now that I am a parent?

What kinds of conversations are you having at your house as your kids get closer to going to school?

2 responses to “Have we given up on public school?

  1. You are right to be alarmed. While private schools have long been used as a bit of a boogey man in talking about public school enrollments, increasingly they are taking significant numbers of students and represent a real threat to public ed enrollment (and thus funding). The real downside, however, is that the education systems (at least from what I see in the province here) are SO far away from re-inventing themselves for the 21st century. There are so many potential creative responses to declining enrollments (caused far more by demographics than private school choice) but so far our school board’s response has been…close yet another school. And I do not see that changing soon.

  2. I did some work a couple of years ago with one of our local high schools and was blown away at how under resourced they are in the technology areas – not that is the only area where innovative practice happens, but that is the one obvious shortfall I experienced.

    Pedagogically, I can’t say. I haven’t experienced the elementary system yet first hand, or looked into it. But it does seem that the system as a whole is quite slow to change.