Alberta can learn from B.C.’s independent school success

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Appeared in the St. Paul Journal, July 3, 2018
Alberta can learn from B.C.’s independent school success

As another school year ends, it’s a good time to reflect on K-12 education in Alberta—including independent schools, and how they fit into the overall model of education.

Although more and more families are choosing independent schools, there are many who view these schools with suspicion and would prefer a more homogenized system. However, we can look to our neighbours in British Columbia for an example of how independent schools provide increased choice and better outcomes for students.

There are several different delivery and financing approaches to K-12 education across Canada, largely because education is strictly a provincial responsibility.

Alberta and Ontario, for instance, offer considerable choice for parents through competing public schools. Both provinces fully funded (i.e. no additional cost to parents) Catholic and French education in the public school system, in addition to standard public schools. Alberta also provides other religious education such as Christian (non-Catholic), Jewish and Islamic within the public system. And 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 very little specialized education in the public system. Independent schools almost entirely deliver such education options in B.C. Indeed, that’s one reason that B.C.’s enrolment in independent schools is almost triple the rate of Alberta—12.9 per cent versus 4.4 per cent of total enrolment.

What’s more, spending on public schools is also significantly lower in B.C. than in Alberta—in 2014/15 (the latest year of comparable data) B.C. spent $11,216 per public school student compared to $13,155 in Alberta—a 17.3 per cent difference.

Considering these facts, what drives opposition to independent schools in Alberta?

A common misconception is that independent schools cater only to the wealthy, but a recent analysis of Alberta families found that the after-tax income of families who choose “non-elite” independent schools, which represent more than 80 per cent of all independent schools in the province, were essentially the same as those with children attending public schools. A similar study of B.C. families found that families who choose non-elite independent schools also have virtually the same after-tax income as public school families.

But independent schools deliver more than just diversity in K-12 education. In a new study examining academic performance based on standardized tests found that non-elite schools in B.C. deliver better educational outcomes. Specifically, in 10 out of the 11 tests included in the analysis, students at non-elite independent schools outperformed similar students at public schools in all six Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA) tests in elementary school and all five provincial exams in secondary school, though the difference for English 12 was not statistically significant.

This is an important finding because, as noted above, non-elite independent schools serve students with the same socio-economic characteristics as public schools. Despite virtually no difference in family income, students at non-elite independent schools achieve higher scores. The largest differences were in the elementary FSAs which tests students on the foundational skills of reading, writing and numeracy. A solid mastery in these areas in the younger grades sets students up for future educational success.

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

When considering K-12 education in Alberta, both families and policymakers would be wise to consider how independent schools fit into the bigger picture of educational delivery.