Will our fee-paying parents be squeezed until the pips squeak?
A teachers' union wants state funds to private schools withdrawn. But drastic cuts could spell trouble, says Kim Bielenberg
Ireland's fee-paying schools are fighting a rearguard action to protect their funding before the Budget.
The Department of Education pays €100m a year in salaries to teachers in schools that charge fees.
In addition it has also paid for some school buildings, computers and other facilities in recent years.
The Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI) has called for funding to private schools to be withdrawn, and the issue was also raised in the Dáil last week by Independent TD Finian McGrath.
He questioned why the Government was slashing spending in disadvantaged schools, while continuing to spend €100 million on private institutions.
He asked: "Is it because the mindset of the Cabinet is informed by the fact that 40% of its members went to private schools?''
The Dublin North Central TD, a former primary school principal, told the Irish Independent: "The bottom line is that they are cutting funding to disadvantaged schools. They are saving very small amounts of money by getting rid of Special Needs assistants, while continuing to pay €100m to exclusive schools.''
The Education Minister Ruairi Quinn may be tempted to take some cash from the private school pot, but he is likely to tread warily. Radical cuts could spell trouble.
The issue is heavily complicated by the way in which the majority of Protestant schools are funded.
For historical reasons, 20 of the 26 Protestant schools in the State charge fees, but in many cases they cater for pupils from a wide variety of backgrounds, and some of these fees are reimbursed using State funds.
Historically, pupils from modest backgrounds often sent their children to board, because there was no Protestant school in their area.
The Protestant schools regard their funding arrangement as distinct from other fee-paying schools.
A previous minister, Batt O'Keeffe, caused uproar when he scrapped annual administrative grants of €2.8m paid to Protestant schools.
In common with other schools that charge fees, Protestant schools have also had their funding for teachers' salaries cut. In the free sector, the State pays for one teacher for every 19 pupils. In fee-paying schools this figure is one in 20.
Michael Hall, Principal of the Church of Ireland King's Hospital School in Dublin, said the difference between Catholic and Protestant fee-paying schools was choice.
"A Catholic parent usually always has a choice between a free and a fee-paying school. That is not true of Protestant parents. There are many counties without any Protestant schools.''
The Protestant schools may have a strong case, particularly when it comes to their middle-of-the-road schools in rural areas, but Ruairi Quinn faces a difficult choice.
Even if he wants to cut funding to fee-paying schools, he will not want to be seen to favour one religion over another.
When Batt O'Keeffe scrapped certain grants to Protestant schools he said there were concerns about the constitutionality of giving funds to Protestant schools, and not to those of a Catholic ethos.
The increasingly vocal lobby working on behalf all private schools puts forward other arguments in favour of the State continuing to pay their teachers.
Citing a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, they estimate that each pupil in the fee-paying sector saves the State €3,500 annually. This is because the State contributes little or nothing towards buildings, and it does not pay a raft of other grants to which State-funded schools are entitled.
Gerry Foley, principal of Belvedere College, has argued that parents of his pupils are taxpayers, and are entitled to free post-primary education.
Like others in the fee-paying sector he has argued that the withdrawal of funding will end up costing the State more, because parents who cannot afford fees will have to send their children to schools without fees.
These arguments are not accepted by John MacGabhann, General Secretary of the TUI, who believes funding to private schools should be withdrawn.
John MacGabhann said: "With the exception of a few schools that charge very low fees, private schools could easily survive on their fee income and still be able to hire additional teachers and offer additional subject choice.
"I respect the right of parents to make a choice, but the State should not be supporting very significant privilege.''
He said: "I also recognise that there would have to be special provision for schools catering for minorities, where there may not be a choice of school.''
Faced with a choice of cutting funding to disadvantaged schools or hitting fee-paying institutions, Ruairi Quinn may see no option but to take the latter course.
But he will want to avoid any measures that are seen to be religiously divisive. There may be more cuts to private education in the Budget, but they are likely to be modest rather than dramatic.