Academic results—another reason to support school choice

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Appeared in the Vancouver Province, June 26, 2018
Academic results—another reason to support school choice

For some students, the end of the school year means saying goodbye to one school and hello to another, so it’s an opportune moment for parents to reflect on school choice.

Here in British Columbia, independent schools—operating outside the public system—provide the bulk of educational choice. There are many benefits to the B.C. model of educational delivery, but they are often ignored by those who prefer less choice and advocate for a more homogenous system.

It’s first important to understand that because K-12 education is a provincial responsibility, there are different delivery and financing approaches across Canada. For instance, Alberta offers considerable education choice for parents through competing public schools. Fully funded Catholic schools are available through the separate system, and religious schools (Christian, Jewish and Islamic) are also available within the public system. Alberta is also the only province to offer specialized education through charter schools, which are semi-independent schools operated within the public system. In contrast, B.C. doesn’t provide any religious and almost no specialized education in the public system.

B.C. does, however, support parents who choose qualifying independent schools by providing funding of either 35 of 50 per cent of the per-student operating amount provided to public schools. This helps keep independent schools accessible to middle- and even some lower-income families.

Indeed, a recent analysis found that the after-tax incomes of families who choose “non-elite” independent schools were essentially the same to those with children attending public schools. In 2013-14, only 8.2 per cent of B.C.’s independent schools in 2013-14 were categorized as elite, which are typically university prep schools that tend to charge significant tuition rates.

By contrast, non-elite independent schools in B.C. tend to offer a wider range of religious and pedagogical approaches not available in the public system. And parents are responding. In fact, roughly one-in-eight K-12 students in B.C. now attend an independent school, and the trend is increasing.

But independent schools deliver more than just diversity in K-12 education. In a new study, we examined school performance on the province’s standardized tests and compared the results between public, elite and non-elite independent schools using the same approach used to compare family income levels.

In 10 of the 11 tests included in the analysis, students at non-elite independent schools outperformed their public school counterparts by a statistically significant margin including in all six Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA) tests in elementary school and all five provincial exams, though the difference for English 12 was not statistically significant.

The largest differences were in the elementary FSA, particularly for writing and numeracy. The gaps in performance were smaller, though still meaningful, for the provincial exams administered for secondary students. (Students at elite independent schools outperformed students at both public and non-elite independent schools on all 11 exams by a statistically significant amount.)

The reality of K-12 education in B.C. is that independent schools deliver much of the choice, and parents are increasingly choosing those schools for their children’s education. The results of several studies now show that those choices may be rooted in not only religious or alternative pedagogies, but also in better educational outcomes, even for families with similar income levels.