Defunding independent schools will rob B.C. families of ability to choose

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Appeared in True North, January 5, 2024
Defunding independent schools will rob B.C. families of ability to choose

Once again, some critics are calling on the British Columbia government to stop funding independent schools. This, they say, would mean more money for government-run public schools. But in fact, if the government stopped funding independent schools, it would likely cost B.C. taxpayers more money and severely damage the ability of many B.C. parents to choose the right school for their child.

About one in eight B.C. schoolkids currently attend independent schools, which deliver the provincial curriculum but often with alternative approaches in the classroom. That’s 13.2 per cent, a higher proportion than in any other province.

Families choose independent schools for many reasons. For some kids, their learning styles or interests don’t fit the one-size-fits-all model of government-run schools. Many kids are bored or have behavioural issues in government-run classrooms. Some kids crave enriched academics, some face significant learning challenges. And some families want a school that celebrates their religion or culture.

Currently, the B.C. government provides independent schools with between 35 to 50 per cent of the per-student grant provided to government-run public schools. In other words, some of the parents’ tax dollars follow their children to the schools of their choice. As a result, B.C. taxpayers currently pay only 35 to 50 per cent of the education costs for 13.2 per cent of B.C. schoolkids. So it’s a good deal for taxpayers.

What would happen if the government stopped funding independent schools?

Some kids will attend independent schools no matter what because their families can afford the tuition. Indeed, 7.7 per cent of independent schools in B.C. are in the “elite” prep school category with high tuition fees. But the remaining 92 per cent of independent schools (e.g. Montessori) are not elite and cater to families with household incomes roughly on par with families whose kids attend government-run public schools.

Without government funding, many of these families could not afford independent schools, which means their children would attend government-run public schools instead and taxpayers would be on the hook for 100 per cent of their education costs. Due to this influx of students, the government would need to increase education spending and likely raise taxes. That would be a bad deal for taxpayers.

Again, with or without government funding, the wealthiest families will always be able to choose their kids’ schools. It’s middle-income and lower-income families who most often don’t have that choice. Rather than eliminate funding for independent schools, like some critics suggest, the B.C. government could enhance equality by increasing per-student funding for lower-income children based on postal code or introducing education savings accounts for families. All B.C. kids deserve to attend schools they love—and leave schools they don’t. And as bullying and classroom violence have made headlines in recent years, families need options.

Finally, B.C.’s per-student spending on government-run public schools has increased by 12.8 per cent since 2012 (after adjusting for inflation) with a large proportion of that spending growth going to teacher compensation, not textbooks.

Meanwhile, according to data from international PISA student tests, B.C. math scores have declined significantly over the last 20 years, and B.C. has seen some the largest declines among provinces in math, science and reading. Clearly, more spending on the government-run system has not improved student performance.

Thankfully, a rising tide lifts all boats. Research shows that when parents have more choice in the type of schools they want their kids to attend, student performance improves across the board—including in government-run public schools.

If the B.C. government wants to improve student performance, it should increase the number of school options available to all families, no matter their income level. If it defunds independent schools, it will only deprive middle- and lower-income families the ability to choose schools that best fit their needs, and make the education system more expensive for all taxpayers.

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