Parents choosing private schools often have little choice but to wait

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Appeared in the Vancouver Sun

Despite the often heard claim that parents prefer public education, British Columbians are increasingly choosing to send their children to independent schools. Unfortunately for many parents who want their children to attend independent schools, thousands of children end up on waiting lists each year.

Simple enrolment statistics illustrate the fact that parents in BC are increasingly choosing independent schools. Since peaking in 1997-98, public school enrolment has fallen from almost 616,000 students to 546,000, a decline of 11.3 per cent. At the same time, independent school enrolment has increased by 22.4 per cent. As of 2011-12, the most recent year for which statistics are available, more than one-in-10 of all primary and secondary students in the province attended an independent school.

Many observers and even proponents of school choice have underestimated the demand for independent schools in British Columbia by only observing current enrolment, which ignores children waiting for acceptance. Up until now such data has been unavailable. In order to gain a better understanding of this demand, a detailed survey of wait lists for independent schools and the responses to them was undertaken this past academic year.

Two-thirds of the independent schools in the Lower Mainland responded to the survey. The basic findings of the survey indicate much stronger parental demand for independent schools than the basic enrolment data show.

Over half of the independent schools who responded to the survey (57.3 per cent) indicated the presence of a wait list for admission. The total number of students identified on wait lists in the Lower Mainland was 2,172. On average, the wait list represented a little more than 14 per cent of the total number of students currently attending a school reporting a wait list.

Tellingly, almost four-fifths of the schools responding with wait lists indicated that the current wait list was “normal” for the previous three years.

In terms of being able to accommodate children on wait lists, only 27 per cent of the reporting schools indicated they were able to admit between 90 and 100 per cent of the waitlist students. Sixty-one per cent of responding schools indicated they could accommodate only up to half of the children on wait lists. Almost 40 per cent of the responding schools stated that they could only accept up to 20 per cent of the students on wait lists.

A few of the results from the religiously-based independent schools offer even deeper insights into parental demand for independent education. First, almost two-thirds of the responding religious schools indicated a wait list for children whose parents were active in their faith. In other words, two out of three religious schools were not able to fully accommodate the parents of their faith institutions who wanted their children to attend a faith-based school.

Even more telling is that almost three-quarters of the religious schools responding to the survey indicated they had students attending their school who were of a different religious background or who were non-religious. The fact that parents send their children to a religious-based independent school when they are either of a different religion or non-religious infers enormous non-religious benefits from independent school education.

Respondents to the survey were also asked to identify and list barriers to expansion, which was intended to assess how independent schools were responding to parental demand. The responses indicate three principal barriers: cost of acquiring land and building, fundraising, and zoning laws.

The three major barriers identified by respondents to the independent schools survey, which were corroborated in the interviews with school association leaders, pertained to the costs associated with purchasing and developing land for school facilities. Policies that would reduce these costs, even marginally, would improve the ability of independent schools to respond to parental demand. An obvious solution is encouraging the use of idle public schools by independent schools wishing to expand. It makes no sense for the public system to spend money maintaining idle public schools that could be used by independent schools.

While British Columbians enjoy a fair degree of choice for K-12 education, survey data show that parental demand for independent schools is not being fully satisfied. As such, the BC government needs to assess and revise policies governing independent schools to strengthen their ability to respond to parental demand.

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