Government support for independent schools should come from the provinces, not the feds

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Appeared in the Vancouver Province, June 6, 2017
Government support for independent schools

Now that Andrew Scheer has been elected leader of the Conservative Party, there’s heightened interest in his policy ideas, including his plan to provide tax deductions of up to $4,000 per student for families with children in independent schools.

Although Scheer is correct to spotlight the burden independent school tuition places on families, his proposal—that the federal government (rather than the provinces) provide assistance—is misguided and could lead to serious unintended consequences for education in Canada. More on that in a minute.

Government support for independent schools benefits many families. Approximately 368,000 students attend nearly 2,000 independent schools across the country.

Although independent schools are often stereotyped as elite institutions for “the rich,” the facts tell a different story. According to recent research, the vast majority of Canadian independent schools are not stereotypically elite prep schools, and a recent study from British Columbia suggests that (at least in that province) average incomes for families relying on “non-elite” independent schools are almost identical to families that rely on government-run public schools.

Subsequently, public assistance for independent schools helps families of varied economic profiles—not just the rich—by making more options available to families who otherwise couldn’t afford independent education.

Given these facts, there’s a strong case for government support for independent schools. Which brings us back to Andrew Scheer, whose plan to provide this support via a federal tax deduction is misguided. And here’s why.

In Canada, K-12 education falls under provincial jurisdiction; there’s no federal ministry of education like in the United States. To implement a federal tax deduction, Ottawa would have to create qualifications for schools to be eligible. With 10 different provinces operating their own ministries of education, and numerous pieces of legislation overseeing the regulation and financing (if applicable) of independent schools, there’s not a simple national definition of an independent school. What’s required to operate an independent school in Ontario, for example, differs from what’s required in Alberta.

Even within provinces there are different types and categories of independent schools, each with a different level of regulation and/or government funding. For example, three Western provinces—B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan—each have four distinct categories of independent schools.

If the federal government gets involved and creates its own conditions for federal tax deduction eligibility, it will add yet another layer of complication to the regulation of independent schools.

What’s more, a federal tuition deduction would open the door to greater federal control over education systems across Canada. One reason several Canadian provinces (B.C., for example) have high-performing education systems by international standards is that provinces are allowed to innovate and experiment with education funding and delivery models that suit them.

Simply look at the recent history of education policy in the United States to see the danger of federal intervention in policy areas best left to sub-national governments. Prior to 1979, there was very little federal involvement in K-12 education until President Jimmy Carter created a federal cabinet post for education and started spending federal dollars to achieve his objectives and monitor performance from Washington. Since then, public spending on education has soared while student performance has declined.

Like in the U.S., greater federal involvement in Canada could fundamentally reshape the decentralized nature of our approach to education policy, lead to policy homogeneity and hurt student performance.

Canada’s health-care system, which underperforms relative to other universal health-care countries, provides another cautionary tale. Health care remains a provincial policy area heavily regulated by federal rules. These rules forbid many types of policy experimentation and are largely responsible for policy inertia, underperformance, and inefficiency (including historically long wait times). We should not risk imposing the same fate on our children’s schools.

New Tory Leader Andrew Scheer deserves credit for putting the issue of government support for independent schools on the policy agenda. However, education has fallen within provincial policy jurisdiction since Confederation, and that’s where it should stay.