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Quebec’s (sadly) distinct education system

February 3, 2020

11-minute read

Le Mouvement L’école ensemble was launched by parents in 2017 to address connections between public financing, equity and school segregation, an issue that no government in Quebec has ever wanted to tackle. Until now. 

We Quebecers like to pride ourselves on having some of the most progressive public policies on the continent. So anything that does not support this (mostly true) narrative is unwelcome. But it’s time to acknowledge that, when comparing provincial funding models, Quebec’s system of education is not only the most unfair, it is also the least efficient. A report containing never-seen-before OECD data comparing provinces on equity was made public in October 2019 by Le Mouvement: Quebec is dead last on every indicator. 

The high degree of structural unfairness and inefficiency in Quebec’s education system has been in la belle province’s political blind spot for half a century, but things are changing: more and more people, including key influencers in politics and the media, are starting to admit we have a serious problem. 

How did we get here? 

The Quiet Revolution 

The Quiet Revolution was in motion when the Department of Education was created in 1964: prior to that point, the Catholic and Protestant churches had been in charge of education but, with the baby boom, the government was struggling to keep up by building new schools. And the Catholic Church still wielded enormous power in the province. 

In 1968 the Union nationale government struck a deal to fund private schools (mostly former “collèges classiques” where the few francophones who had access at that time to secondary education were educated) with taxpayers’ money. The Parent Commission, tasked by the provincial government under Premier Lesage to make recommendations in order to modernise Quebec’s education system, backed this decision. As former commission member Guy Rocher recently recalled in an interview, the Commission came close to officially opposing the public funding of private schools, but the inherent give-and-take of such an exercise and the fear that a minority report would weaken the overall exercise eventually allowed the Church’s position to prevail. 

The Catholic Church's gain soon became Quebec’s loss; this public financing of private education would prove to be a one-way street to school segregation and its consequences. 

A Vicious Circle 

This public money allowed subsidized private schools to continuously increase their share of the school market. Only 5% of secondary school students attended private schools in 1970: today, more than 22% of them do so. It should be noted that 93% of the province’s private school students are in subsidized private schools, which charge tuition fees and screen applicants, further reinforcing socioeconomic segregation. 

But rather than opposing the fiscal privilege granted to subsidized private schools, public institutions and education ministers instead decided to compete with private schools on their own turf: selection. Public schools officials wanted the same competitive advantage private schools had, i.e. the capacity to offer parents an exclusive environment for their children. 

And so, in the 1990s, “projets particuliers” (selective public schools, or classes within schools) were created, with modes of selection that are still used to filter out kids who aren’t the right “fit”: registration, exam fees, exams, tuition (anywhere between $100 and $10,000), auditions, letters, mandatory parental involvement, etc. With a number of different focuses—international, sports, arts or alternative programming—the new “public” schools proved extremely popular with parents. Not only were most of them cheaper than private schools, they offered a comforting loophole for left-of-centre parents who wanted the benefit of private-like schooling without actually leaving the public system. 

The Department of Education does not make public any detailed picture of selective schools’ attendance and, likewise, there isn’t any public data on the socioeconomic composition of selective public schools.¹ 

In a 2007 report, the Conseil supérieur de l’éducation² estimated the proportion of pupils in selective public schools at 20%, describing this figure as “conservative”. Testimonies the Mouvement has received suggest this figure is much higher today. 

As a result of this socioeconomic “skimming”, “regular” public schools have an over-representation of students with special needs who tend to require more support. Particularly in an era of underfunded and under-resourced schools, this composition of the “regular” public school classroom makes subsidized private and selective public schools more attractive to parents. And the vicious circle becomes even more entrenched. 


This three-tier school system led the Conseil supérieur de l’éducation to sound the alarm in a 2016 landmark report, Steering the Course Back to Equity in Education. The Conseil explained that “in all provinces or regions of Canada, students in disadvantaged schools have performed less well than those in privileged schools, but this difference is much higher in Quebec.” The report clearly states that something is rotten in the state of Quebec. 

Its findings are worth quoting extensively (emphasis added): 

The socio-economic status of Canadian students appears in effect to have relatively little influence on their score (OECD 2014). However, in every subject measured by PISA, the difference in achievement between students from schools in disadvantaged areas and those in affluent ones continues to be markedly more significant in Québec than in other Canadian provinces or territories. And yet social programs in Québec are considered to be more generous than in other provinces. The analysis also shows that the stratification of the offer in compulsory education—brought about by a proliferation of selective special programs and private schools—is leading to an unequal treatment that tends to favour the more fortunate. In other words, those who most need the best learning conditions are not benefitting from them, and this runs counter to the very essence of equity. 

Rather than reducing social inequality, however, the Québec education system operates in ways that contribute to some extent to perpetuating it. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with learning disabilities are overrepresented in public classrooms [...]. In addition, families from disadvantaged communities tend to be less informed about their rights or lack the capability to assert them. Thus, despite countervailing measures in place in these communities, the education system has barely made a dent in reducing these contextual inequalities

Competition in education goes hand in hand with the belief that not all schools are alike, and is feeding a crisis of confidence that is weakening the public education system. This crisis reinforces the tendency to group students by educational and or socio-economic profiles, resulting in a form of exclusion that is opening the door to a multi-tiered school. Thus a gap is growing between communities, with some institutions or classrooms viewed as less conducive for learning (shunned by those families who can) and working conditions more challenging (shunned by those teachers who can). 

This issue is one of fairness or equity—or, in this case, unfairness and inequity. Disadvantaged and marginalized students (and this is true around the world) tend to perform less well academically particularly absent the necessary supports. In a fairer system, such as Finland’s, this difference in performance is mitigated. But in an inequitable system like Quebec’s, inequalities at the starting line remain until the finish line. PISA researchers summarised the issue in October 2018’s PISA in Focus newsletter: “Socio-economic status has a strong influence on students’ performance, but in more equitable education systems more disadvantaged students perform well.” 

With more than 42% of the province’s schoolchildren segregated (22% of children chosen by the subsidized private sector schools in addition to the [at least] 20% of children screened by public selective schools), we should not be surprised by Quebec’s poor results and their consequences: 

  • A quarter of secondary school students drop out. 
  • Dropouts cost taxpayers $2 billion in annualised dollars according to a 2009 BMO study. 
  • A quarter of teachers leave the profession during their first five years in the labour market. 
  • 53% of 16–65 year-olds in Quebec have low or insufficient literacy skills. 
So why are we ignoring this situation? 

Political Mythology 

Until now, two myths have allowed the private school lobby (the Fédération des établissements d’enseignements privés [FEEP]) to avoid any serious attack on its privileges. The first claims that subsidized private schools actually save taxpayers money. The second one states that private schools are simply better and therefore need to continue their exemplary work (to form the next generation of leaders, and to inspire public schools). These myths are held as facts by millions of Quebecers although they are built on sand. 

Private Schools Save Us Money? Really? 

According to Quebec’s Department of Education, private schools receive 60% of their budget from taxpayers, and the remaining 40% comes from private school parents. Private school proponents claim that if private schools were nationalized, the remaining 40% would also have to come from taxpayers and this would prove too great a burden for the public treasury. 

But the legendary 60% figure disguises reality, because it does not compare apples with apples; it does not acknowledge the higher cost of supporting special needs kids who are overrepresented in the public system, and it does not acknowledge that because public education is a universal commitment, all kids must have access to it and all teachers must be paid fairly, regardless of population density or location. 

So, what’s the right number? The best-known estimate came from the group of experts chaired by the former Quebec Ombudsman, Ms. Champoux-Lesage, who examined education financing in 2014. The group estimated that the cost to the state of a subsidized private student was 74.8% of that of an equivalent public student in high school, 63.9% in elementary school and 63.6% in preschool. 

But to that direct funding we must also add indirect funding through tax credits. According to a study by a Université de Sherbrooke professor, tax credits for donations to private schools cost us between $16 million and $24 million per year. If we split the difference and add $20 million to direct funding, we reach an astonishing figure of 79% of public funding for private secondary school students. In other words, almost eight out of every 10 dollars needed to educate subsidized private school pupils comes from public funds. 

That’s a long way from the often quoted 60%. 

But the private schools lobby also conveniently forgets that if its schools were not publicly subsidized, their students would not cost³ the public purse a penny—another potential saving that must absolutely be taken into account. In Ontario, where private schools are not subsidized, 5.6% of secondary level students (in 2016) attend those schools, at zero cost to taxpayers. 

In fact, we have calculated that eliminating the public subsidy to private schools and integrating private school students into public schools would save Quebec taxpayers $14 million each year (for secondary schools). And this says nothing about long-term gains (lower drop-out rates, better social cohesion) for our economy as a result of making the public system more efficient and more fair though redirecting of all public funding earmarked for private education towards public schools. 

Private Schools are Not Better 

The second myth is perhaps the most powerful; that private schools are simply better than public ones. Statistics Canada studied this in a 2015 report, and concluded that “Students who attended private high schools were more likely to have socio-economic characteristics positively associated with academic success and to have school peers with university-educated parents.” In other words, private schools are not better: private school students have fewer challenges and obstacles, so what is at issue here is the selection of students and the resulting school segregation. 

The myth that private schools are better is ingrained in the public conscience. Annual Fraser Institute rankings, dutifully reported by media anxious to help parents “shop” for the best possible schools, reinforce this idea. And even some lower-income parents sing the praises of public subsidies for private schools. We occasionally receive feedback on social media from some financially-squeezed families saying that they don’t take vacation so they can send their kids to private school—that it’s a matter of “priorities.” And isn’t this the First Law of Being a Parent: wanting the best for your child? 

Although the Department of Education does not publicize information concerning the income of private school parents, the Mouvement L’école ensemble analyzed data from Quebec children participating in the PISA exam and found that there are few low-income children in private schools. In fact, there are six times more disadvantaged children in public schools than in private ones (29.8% versus 5.6%). While this six-fold figure should have triggered an emergency debate in the National Assembly (like it did in France after famous economist Thomas Pikkety wrote about France’s similar numbers in Le Monde), the ugly truth is that had we been able to extract numbers that isolated regular public from selective public schools, it’s likely that the situation is even worse. 

It’s also notable that, to access this data, we had to go through PISA servers in Paris to get a better portrait of forces at play in Quebec’s education system, but the results were not particularly surprising: we already knew (thanks to a private schools lobby report) that subsidized private families have a median income 184% higher than that of public families. 

When presented with these numbers, we can, like the current Education minister Jean-François Roberge, say they tell us nothing new and maintain our unofficial school segregative policy. Or we can fight back for the common good. 

Change is Coming 

Attitudes toward school segregation are changing. Social acceptance of entrance exams, tuition fees, expulsion of unwanted students or other methods of screening children is falling. Last spring, education minister Roberge introduced Bill 12 which sought to clarify what additional costs schools can and cannot charge to parents, after a lawsuit launched by a parent who refused to pay a fee for her child’s recorder. Thanks to the rising awareness of the causes and implications of school inequity in the province, all three opposition parties, including the Liberals, usually a vocal status quo force on the matter, took on the issue of tuition in selective public schools. 

In the end, the majority CAQ government managed to pass its bill, putting for the first time in law that the requirement for the state to provide free public education does not apply to selective public schools. But the debate was intense. Le Mouvement joined other citizen groups calling on the Minister to focus Bill 12 on general fees—for recorders and the like—and set up a public commission to study tuition in selective public schools along with all matters relating to school segregation. All three opposition parties supported the idea. The Minister did not but, in the process, he was forced to admit his department had no clear portrait of the attendance of selective public schools nor any socioeconomic data about the students who attend them and publicly mandated his department to provide him with this information. 

There are few things more difficult for politicians than taking away a privilege from current and potential voters. But the arguments against school segregation are backed by facts and science, and by the majority of Quebecers—and the odds against change are shifting. Distinguishing ourselves in Canada with the unfairness currently built into our education system needs to end. 

And for the first time, it appears that it may. 

Stéphane Vigneault is the coordinator of le Mouvement L’école ensemble, works in the art sector as a consultant, and lives in Gatineau QC.

Le Mouvement L’école ensemble campaigns against school segregation in Quebec. You can sign its petition at www. Individuals and organizations interested in helping the association achieve its goal of hiring a full-time employee can donate online. 


¹ Good socioeconomic data for the public system in general is not available. There are two public school socioeconomic rankings publicly available (SFR and IMSE), but they are poorly constructed indexes in which kids bring in their postal code’s characteristics instead of their household’s. Private schools are excluded from these indexes. 

² The Conseil supérieur de l’éducation (CSE) is a public, arm’s length advisory body for the Minister of Education and Higher Education. 

³ (Editor’s note) Andrew Scheer, until recently leader of the Canadian Conservative Party, had voiced his intentions to provide parents who send their children to private schools with a tax credit of up to $4,000 per child from the federal government if he was elected Prime Minister. He reversed this pledge before the election.

This article originally appeared in the Our Schools Our Selves section of the January February 2020 issue of the Monitor. To receive a print copy of the next issue, become a CCPA supporter today.

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