Lawmakers expressed sadness yesterday over the government's "short-sighted and immoral" decision to end its subsidy to the English Schools Foundation.
They said costly international schools could not replace the service offered by the foundation to middle-class families.
The plan was put before a meeting of the Legislative Council education panel after the government decided last month to phase out the HK$283 million annual subvention over 13 years.
It was the first opportunity for lawmakers to discuss the issue.
"Legco was the last one to be informed of the plan. The government didn't respect our opinion at all," Civic Party legislator Kenneth Chan Ka-lok said. "It's short-sighted and immoral to take away the ESF's subvention. Does the government want to see all English-language schools turning into Harrow [International School]?"
Chan, whose four children attend ESF schools, said the decision removed an affordable choice of English-medium education, damaging the city's competitiveness.
Tuition fees for international schools can be as high as HK$200,000 a year or more. Fees for the ESF's 20 primary and secondary schools range from HK$66,100 to HK$102,000, but foundation chairman Carlson Tong Ka-shing has said these will rise by at least 23 per cent as the government starts to withdraw the subsidy from 2016.
Claudia Mo Man-ching, also of the Civic Party, agreed international schools could not replace ESF schools because they targeted specific groups of students.
She said her children had gone to the French International School, which is essentially for the French-speaking community, when she was working for a French news agency.
Removal of the subsidy was "very saddening", Mo said. "You are taking away yet another choice from Hong Kong parents who are keen to give their children an English education."
Tommy Cheung Yu-yan of the Liberal Party said his three children were in ESF primary and secondary schools.
Although he criticised the management of the foundation, citing reports of an ESF school principal allegedly spending more than HK$10,000 on a meal, he said the government should take a closer look at how the foundation used its subsidy instead of removing it.
"The ESF is an independent kingdom that has bad management," Cheung said.
"But that doesn't mean the Liberal Party supports the phasing out of the subsidy. Why won't the Education Bureau do anything to solve the management problems? Why should it deprive middle-class parents of the right to send their children to ESF schools?"
Cheung also disagreed with the government's reasoning in not subsidising schools offering non-local curriculums. He said even local schools should start to offer international curriculums such as the International Baccalaureate programmes.
The ESF board voted on June 18 to accept the removal of the subsidy. A group of parents later said that they were taking legal advice with the aim of seeking a judicial review, even though they knew it would be a costly and difficult process.
Chan said later that while Legco had no vote on the issue as it stood, lawmakers could still hold a meeting in September for parents to give their views.