Most independent schools in B.C. don't cater to 'elites'

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Appeared in the Vancouver Sun, March 30, 2017

As the provincial election nears, given the importance of K-12 education, one hopes it will be a front and centre issue when British Columbians decide who should govern the province for the next four years. Unfortunately, much of the information concerning independent schools is more caricature than fact.

When many British Columbians hear the term “private schools” or even “independent schools” they think of elite (and expensive) preparatory schools that cater to the wealthiest. This simply does not reflect the reality of the province’s independent school sector.

First, it’s important to note that only Quebec has a larger share of K-12 students enrolled in independent schools. In 2013-14, the most recent year of available data, 75,402 students were enrolled in an independent school in B.C., representing 12.3 per cent of all K-12 students in the province.

Second, it’s fairly clear from the data that elite independent schools represent only a small share of the total independent schools in the province. A recent study, A Diverse Landscape: Independent Schools in Canada, provided an in-depth categorization of all independent schools in Canada. It concluded that only 28 (or 8.2 per cent) of the province’s 340 independent schools were “elite” preparatory schools.

In other words, more than 90 per cent of the independent schools in B.C. do not cater to the “elite” but rather to average British Columbians who for a variety of reasons want their children educated outside the government system. The two most prominent explanations are religion and alternative/specialty education.

B.C. does not offer any religious education options within the government system. Parents who want their children educated within a religiously-oriented environment must choose independent schools. Indeed, the study noted above concluded that 55.3 per cent of independent schools in B.C. had a religious orientation.

Furthermore, one-fifth of independent schools in B.C. are categorized as specialty schools that address specific curriculum and pedagogical preferences. Waldorf schools, Montessori schools, special needs education, as well as schools focusing on specific-subject matter such as arts, athletics, or STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Math) fall within this categorization.

The idea, however, that independent schools cater to wealthy British Columbians persists. Some suggest that while not all independent schools are elite preparatory schools, the parents that choose independent schools are nonetheless still affluent compared to parents choosing government schools.

A recent study examined this claim and found it incorrect. Using B.C. Ministry of Education and Statistics Canada data it examined the average after-tax income for families choosing public schools versus those with children in independent schools. At first blush it does appear that families with children in independent schools have materially higher income—$88,367 (after taxes) compared to $77,396, on average, for families with children in public schools.

However, that analysis includes families with children at elite independent schools. If those families are removed, the average income (after-tax) for the remaining families with children attending independent schools falls to $78,894, which is only 1.9 per cent above the average income for families with children in public schools. Simply put, families choosing independent schools (non-elite) have essentially the same income as those choosing public schools.

B.C.’s reliance on independent schools to provide the diversity and choice demanded and preferred by an increasing share of parents in the province has been a strength for one of the country’s best K-12 education systems. Discussing how best to improve that system is worthwhile, but the discussion must be based on facts not conjecture or caricatures.

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