Independent schools offer BC parents shelter from labour strife

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Appeared in the Vancouver Sun

As BC parents and students struggle with the teachers’ strike and prospects of a significantly delayed school year, it’s worth understanding how and why one-in-eight students (and their parents) in the province is unaffected by the strike.

British Columbia is one of five provinces that offer support to parents who send their children to an independent school. Specifically, eligible independent schools in BC receive per-pupil government operating grants between 35 and 50 per cent of those provided to nearby public schools. The remaining costs are covered by tuition fees and fundraising.

Independent schools are unaffected by the teachers’ strike because they’re not part of the government-provided education system. The distinction between supporting education through public grants and actually providing public education through government schools is an important one. If our collective aim is to ensure children have access to a quality education, then the provider of that education is a secondary consideration. This is distinct from those who advocate for government-provided education. The costs of the latter are seen every day in BC right now because government-provided education by definition is a monopoly and thus imposes all the standard costs of a monopoly.

The relief valve from this monopoly has been the province’s independent schools. BC has the second highest rate of independent school enrolment in the country, behind only Quebec. Specifically, in 2012-13, some 74,000 children attended independent schools, representing a little over 12 per cent of all K-12 students in the province.

In addition, enrolment in independent schools is growing while it’s declining in the public system. Since 2000-01, the number of K-12 students enrolled in the public system in BC has declined by 11.5 per cent while independent school enrolment has increased by 24 per cent.

These figures do not, however, capture the entire demand for independent schools. A 2012 study measured wait lists for independent schools in the Lower Mainland and found significant unmet demand. Specifically, 57.3 per cent of independent schools in the Lower Mainland reported wait lists and almost four-fifths of those schools indicated the wait lists were “normal” for the previous three years. This represented 2,172 students waiting for entry to independent schools.

Too many British Columbians have a misperception of independent schools. Visions of high cost, prep schools tend to dominate. The reality is quite different. The independent school sector includes religious, alternative pedagogies, specialization, as well as preparatory schools. In other words, there is a wide diversity of schooling options offered by independent schools that buttresses the basic education offered by government schools.

A key advantage to independent schools is their flexibility and ability to adapt compared to government schools. While basic provincial curriculum must be provided and accredited teachers employed, independent schools in the province retain a much higher degree of autonomy than their government counterparts, which allows them to better innovate and adapt. International research consistently shows high parental satisfaction with the responsiveness offered by independent schools to individual student needs.

The benefits of independent schooling are more readily apparent during times like this when the costs of a monopolized government system come into focus. Extending the benefits of independent schooling to more parents and their children could be achieved through a number of reforms.

One incremental change that would improve access to independent schools is for the provincial government to more forcefully “encourage” local school boards to lease out idle and vacant government schools. There is enormous unmet demand for independent schools and one of the main barriers in meeting this demand is the cost of acquiring additional land for expansion or the creation of new schools. Leasing out unused, idle government schools seems like a no-brainer.

There are also larger scale reforms that could be considered such as increasing the percentage of costs covered by government grants, which is the case in a number of jurisdictions ranging from Alberta to Sweden. BC could also investigate covering part of the capital costs for schools as is done in Australia.

There is little doubt that BC parents and school children would benefit from more school choice by extending the independent school options available to them.

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