Are private schools worth the money?
Private schools score well on independent tests, but they can cost a bundle.

Two years ago Steve and Karl Elhen's grandmother passed away. In her will, she left them a modest fund to pay for their education, which forced the Brossard teenagers to make a tough choice.

They could continue to attend Montreal's Lower Canada College which their grandmother had been partially paying for, or they could invest the money, and on their 25th birthdays they would inherit the cash.

"You want to know whether we think private schools are worth the money?," asked Steve Elhen. "We're paying for our education out of our own pocket. That should tell you something."

And Elhen isn't just laying out pocket change. According to Elizabeth Therrien-Scanlan, of the Quebec Association of Independent Schools, a private education can cost between $3,000 and $12,000 a year. Lower Canada College, one of the province's top English language private schools is at the higher end of that scale.

Getting kids the best education possible is one of the toughest challenges parents face. And it's becoming increasingly clear that to get the best, parents need to consider private schools.

The example set by Sylvain Simard, the province's education minister, who turned to the private system for his three kids' education, is typical of many Quebecers' attitudes. Though Quebecers tend to be uncomfortable with an elitist private system in principal, we are quite willing to overlook those principals when it comes to doing what's best for our kids.

Quebec has the highest percentage of private school students in the country. About 100,000 students, or 9.1 per cent of the province's school age population are enrolled in private schools, more than double Ontario's 4.6 per cent.

This should come as no surprise. According to a November 2001 rankings of secondary school students by the Fraser Institute and the Institut Économique de Montréal, private schools far outrank their public rivals in provincial exams, and other objective comparison criteria.

Only four out of the top 50 schools in the Fraser rankings were from the public sector. The picture for English public schools is even worse. Not a single one ranked in the top 50.

There have been several reasons advanced for the poor performance of English public schools. But most of the answers lie in Quebec City where a centralized, entrenched, mostly-francophone education bureaucracy issues directives on a wide range of issues to the province's schools. Not all of those directives take into consideration the province's diversity.

In practice that means parents of school-age kids have little opportunity for input at the school level. Most of the flexibility they have regarding their kids education lies in the choice of whether or not to follow Simard's example and take the private school option.

For most Quebec parents, the dilemma boils down to two questions: whether private schools are worth the money, and whether the family can come up with the cash.

If you ask Steve Elhen, the answer to the first question is a no-brainer. "LCC is a great school," Elhen said. "The teachers seem really interested in their jobs, and there is a good atmosphere. You can sense that kids really want to be here."

Classmate Alexandra Postans, co-president of the school's student council, agreed. "I have friends in public schools who tell me what its like. And I think we are really fortunate," said Postans, an LCC scholarship winner. "We have so many extras, like air conditioning, new equipment and sports trips."

Representatives of Canada's independent schools tend to be modest regarding their performance. Many of these schools receive provincial government funding or benefit from tax deductions, which they do not want to put in jeopardy by excessive gloating.

In Quebec, provincial government funding for private secondary school students amounted to $3,210 per child per annum during the 1999-2000 school year, compared to $5,472 for public school students.

Elizabeth Therrien-Scanlan, of the Quebec Association of Independent Schools' comment is typical. "We don't claim to be better than public schools, many of which do a very good job," said Therrien-Scanlan. "What we advocate is choice. Parents should have a say in their children's education."

But according to a representative of Quebec's teachers union, much of the private school's success is overblown. "The private school clientele is very different from that in the public system," said Monique Richard, president of the Centrale des Syndicats du Québec. "You cannot compare the two systems."

Critics charge that private schools "cream,' the best and most motivated students, and they leave problem students and those with learning difficulties to the public sector. "Private schools are set up as élite institutions," said one knowledgeable education official. "And if they are élite institutions, they should expect élite results."

The public policy question of whether a society should maintain an unbalanced two-tier educational system will remain open to debate for a long time. But as an immediate practical matter, the evidence is too strong. Quebec parents who are concerned about their kids' education have no choice. They must a least weigh the costs and benefits of a private school education.




The Quebec Association of Independent Schools holds its annual School Fair Sunday October 6th from 1:00 to 4:00 PM, at the Dorval Airport Hilton. Visitors can meet with representatives and students from 23 of the province's English private schools. For information call 483-6111.


Photo caption: According to Lower Canada College students Steve and Karl Elhen, and Alexandra Postans, private schools offer many advantages that public schools just can't match.

Sidebar: Private school benefits

o A selected student clientele offers a better learning environment.
o Students are highly motivated since parents are paying big dollars to finance their education
o Under-performing or problem students are weeded out or discouraged, and left to the public school system
o Private schools are better funded. This leads to superior physical assets such as computers, music and sports equipment.


o The cost, between $3,000 and $12,000 a year, can make private schools prohibitively expensive for most families, especially those with multiple children.
o Private schools provide a somewhat sheltered environment, which may put students at a disadvantage in understanding real world issues.



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