Parents increasingly choosing independent schools in British Columbia

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Appeared in the Vancouver Province, October 16, 2015

All across Canada, more and more parents are choosing to enroll their children in independent schools. This trend is particularly pronounced in British Columbia, which currently has the second highest independent school enrolment rate in Canada.

B.C.’s success in responding to increased demand for education options outside the public system is not an accident. Rather, it’s partly the result of an approach to education funding that reduces financial barriers to parents who prefer an independent school for their child. Subsequently, B.C.’s funding approach represents a useful model for other provinces to examine for policy lessons.

First, consider the numbers. Between school years 2000/01 and 2012/13, enrolment in independent schools across Canada increased by 16.5 per cent. This is a substantial increase, made all the more remarkable because the country’s school-age population (5 to 17 year olds) shrank by 6.4 per cent during this same period.

Independent school enrolment rates increased in every province except New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, despite the fact that every province except Alberta has a shrinking school-age population.

In B.C., independent school enrolment rate increased by a whopping 24.4 per cent between 2000/01 and 2012/13, despite a 9 per cent drop in the province’s school-age population.

With more parents seeking alternatives to the public school system, it’s important to ask whether governments are doing enough to help parents afford to send their children to the school of their choice. The evidence suggests B.C. is performing comparatively well in this regard.

In the most recent year of available data, 11.6 per cent of all students in B.C. were enrolled in independent schools—the second highest rate in Canada, behind only Quebec, at 12.6 per cent. Third place Manitoba stood at 7.6 per cent.

One reason for the high rates of independent school participation in Quebec, B.C. and Manitoba is that in each of these provinces, independent schools receive some amount of funding from their provincial governments for each student they educate. In B.C., eligible independent schools receive 35 or 50 per cent of the amount allocated for operations per student in the local school district. This assistance reduces out-of-pocket costs for parents, making independent schooling more accessible.

In addition to helping defray costs for parents, this policy approach can create savings for taxpayers. Since per-student grants to independent schools are significantly less than 100 per cent of the per-student operating budget in local school districts, taxpayers save between 40-65 per cent of a child’s per-student operating cost every time a student moves from the public system to an independent school.

B.C.’s funding model responds to the growing demand for more choice for parents, and it helps relieve the budgetary pressures faced by both parents and taxpayers. Given the evidently growing demand for alternatives to public education, jurisdictions like Ontario and the Atlantic provinces that offer no financial support for independent schools could learn from the B.C. model and reform their approach to education funding.

B.C.’s policy of providing financial support for independent schools is a success, and it deserves more attention from the rest of Canada.

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