Misconceptions and untruths threaten public funding for independent schools in B.C.

Printer-friendly version
Appeared in the Vancouver Sun, April 24, 2017

Across British Columbia, more than 80,000 children attend independent schools. Currently, the provincial government provides most of the province’s 350 independent schools with grants for each student, worth 35 to 50 per cent of the per-student operating costs in public schools, while parents pay any remaining tuition costs. And independent schools receive no government support for capital spending (buildings, etc.) or maintenance.

This partial support for independent school families is under fire from several quarters, including John Horgan (pictured above), leader of B.C.’s New Democratic Party.

In August of 2016, Horgan posed a seemingly rhetorical question: “Should we be funding schools that are preparing the elite and the affluent for post-secondary education, or should we be funding those families that choose to have a faith-based model?”

While Horgan implied that money for independent schools could be more prudently allocated, he noted that such a question was “a debate and discussion for the election campaign.”

However, rather than clarify his party’s stance on the issue, the NDP’s recently released platform simply committed to “examine our school funding formula.” Although the platform doesn’t say so explicitly, Horgan’s remarks strongly suggest that any such review would at least consider cutting public support for independent schools.

The stakes in this policy debate are high, and should be informed by the facts.

Firstly, the notion that the public school system in B.C. is being “starved”—another common claim in some quarters—doesn’t square with the data. In fact, between 2004/05 and 2013/14 (the last year of comprehensive data), inflation adjusted per-student spending in B.C. public schools increased by nearly 20 per cent.

Second, Horgan’s claim about the “elite and affluent” is misguided and reflects a fundamental misunderstanding about what types of families rely on independent schools.

A recent study analyzed all the province’s independent schools and found that just 8.2 per cent can be reasonably classified as “elite” prep schools. In reality, the vast majority of independent schools are religiously oriented institutions or specialty schools that emphasize particular subject areas or pedagogical approaches such as the Waldorf or Montessori methods.

Moreover, another recent study shows that the average income for families with students in these non-elite independent schools is $78,894 compared to $77,396 for public school families. That’s just a 1.9 per cent gap.

So much for the idea that public funding for independent schools is a handout to the rich. In fact, families throughout the income distribution rely on independent schools and cutting partial funding would put real financial pressure on many families.

And here’s a crucial part of the story you won’t hear in certain quarters. Because independent schools are only partially funded, every time a parent in B.C. chooses an independent school for their child, the government saves thousands of dollars per year. Suggesting that independent school funding damages the public school system—or helps “starve” it, as some suggest—unnecessarily pits British Columbians against one another. The less dramatic but happier truth is that public and private schools operate side by side throughout B.C., educating kids with different needs and serving families with different preferences.

Currently, B.C. is a national leader in both student achievement and the delivery of school choice to parents. Of course, we should continually strive to do even better, but reform strategies should rely on clear objectives and hard evidence. Removing partial public funding for independent schools based on a series of misconceptions does nothing to improve education in B.C., which is what most families want and deserve.

Subscribe to the Fraser Institute

Get the latest news from the Fraser Institute on the latest research studies, news and events.