Contrary to stereotypes, independent schools aren’t just for rich families

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Appeared in the Ottawa Sun, April 12, 2017

The debate over government support for independent schools remains one of the most controversial in Ontario education.

The issue has bubbled up several times over the past 20 years. For example, in 2001 Mike Harris’ government introduced the Equity in Education Tax Credit which, when fully implemented, would have given Ontario parents with kids in independent schools a refundable tax credit representing 50 per cent of their tuition costs capped at $3,500 annually.

Proponents lauded the tax credit as a policy that would provide vital financial help to low- and middle-income families struggling to cover tuition costs on top of the taxes they paid to support government-run public schools.

Opponents, however, painted a very different picture. During the 2003 election campaign, Dalton McGuinty blasted the independent school tax credit, suggesting it was designed to help wealthy families. Later as premier, McGuinty quickly cancelled the credit before it was fully implemented.

So who was right? New research from British Columbia finds that, in B.C. at least, the notion that independent school families are nearly all wealthy is simply not true.

Specifically, one recent study shows that only 8.2 per cent of all independent schools in B.C. can be reasonably categorized as “elite” prep schools. The remaining vast majority of independent schools are either religiously oriented, or specialty schools emphasizing particular subject areas or alternative pedagogical approaches (Montessori schools, for example).

A second recent study compares the incomes of families that send their children to public schools with independent school families in B.C.

Of course, families with children in elite independent prep schools have higher average incomes ($119, 242 after tax).

However, if you look at the remaining 91.8 per cent of independent schools—those that are not elite prep schools—a completely different picture emerges. Families with kids at these independent schools have an average after-tax income of $78,894 compared to $77,396 for families with kids in public school. The gap is just 1.9 per cent. So in B.C., independent school families are not all well-to-do by any means.

Of course, there are important differences between the education models in B.C. and Ontario. For example, Ontario provides fully funded Catholic education through public school boards whereas B.C. does not. Furthermore, B.C. already provides some support for independent schools via a per-student grant that helps defray costs for parents. Conversely, Ontario, alone among non-Atlantic provinces, provides no public money for independent schools. So it’s not certain a similar study in Ontario would produce identical results.

That said, compared to B.C., an even smaller share of independent schools in Ontario (just 3.9 per cent) are elite prep schools. And as in B.C., most independent schools here are religiously oriented or have a special emphasis on a specific subject or pedagogical approach. These facts strongly suggest the notion that nearly all independent school families are wealthy is a misguided stereotype in Ontario, again, just like in B.C.

The debate over whether the government should support independent school families should be informed by the best possible evidence. The B.C. data shows that all kinds of families rely on independent schools to meet their children’s educational needs—not just the wealthy.

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