The reality of independent school funding in British Columbia

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Appeared in Vancouver Sun, September 22, 2016

In British Columbia, the provincial government partially funds independent schools, which are not government-run. Calls for the reduction or elimination of independent school funding, which we often hear at the start of every school year, rest largely on misunderstandings, and in some cases, outright myths. 

Independent schools generally receive between 35 and 50 per cent of comparable per student spending in public schools but receive no funding or support for capital spending such as the construction and maintenance of facilities. (These additional costs are borne by the families who send their children to independent schools.)

Proponents of reducing or eliminating government funding of independent schools often argue that public schools are “starved” of resources. But the B.C. government will provide public schools with a record $5.1 billion this school year. Further, from 2004/05 to 2013/14, per student spending in public schools increased by 18.3 per cent (after adjusting for inflation). Clearly, the public school system in B.C. is not starving. In fact, it’s hard to see any evidence of actual spending “cuts.”

It’s also not entirely clear that reducing or eliminating funding for independent schools would actually result in higher levels of per student spending in public schools—unless the provincial government is willing to increase total spending quite dramatically.

Consider this. In 2013/14, the latest year of available data, 340 independent schools operated in the province—about 88 per cent of these schools received some level of government funding. If the government reduced or eliminated funding for independent schools, some share of students currently attending such schools would inevitably migrate to the public system. Consequently, the public system would incur the full cost of the new student who formerly attended an independent school where the government only paid for part of the cost when the student was in an independent school. Not a good deal for taxpayers or the public system.

We calculate that if more than 37,464 (47.2 per cent of the total) full-time equivalent students mi¬grate from independent to public schools following a discontinuation of funding, the money the government saved by cutting that funding would be consumed by covering the full cost of those students in the public system. 

Were any more independent students to mi¬grate to the public system, overall govern¬ment spending on education in the province would have to increase or per student funding levels in the public school would fall. And given the finances of the provincial government, it’s not inconceivable that per student funding would decline. In addition, the government would likely need to spend additional monies to renovate and expand existing public schools to accommodate the new students.

Another common argument made to justify reducing independent schools funding is that B.C. taxpayers shouldn’t subsidize elite schools for the wealthy. But according to a recent analysis, less than 10 per cent of all B.C. independent schools conform to an “elite” stereotype. Thus, if government discontinues funding for independent schools, it would affect the other 90 per cent of schools, which include almost all religiously-oriented schools in the province as well as schools offering alternative approaches to teaching. 

Finally, it’s worth noting that independent schools provide most of the choice and diversity offered to parents, and most of the competition between schools, in K-12 education in B.C. In addition, parents who choose independent schools shoulder the burden of taxes plus additional tuition costs well above funding provided by government. Reducing or eliminating independent school funding would reduce parental choice, educational diversity, and may lower per student spending in public schools. That’s bad news for education in the province.

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