New evidence proves independent schools aren’t just for rich kids

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Appeared in the Edmonton Sun, April 15, 2017

Before this year’s budget, activist groups in Alberta pressured Premier Notley’s government to withdraw financial support for families attending independent schools.

Under the current rules, a large majority (at least 78.6 per cent) of independent schools in Alberta receive per student grants from the government—equal to between 60 and 70 per cent of the per student amount given to government-run public schools. Parents pay remaining tuition costs, in addition to taxes that support public schools.

Defenders of this partial funding argue removing this support would place a financial burden on many families. For example, Diana Stinn of the Phoenix Education Foundation stated that if partial funding was removed, many cash-strapped families relying on independent schools would be unable to pay tuition and would have to enroll their kids in government-run schools, even if those schools didn’t meet their children’s needs.

And yet, a spokesman for Public Interest Alberta, which opposes funding of independent schools, dismissed such concerns stating that “almost all” parents with kids in independent schools would keep them there “no matter what rate they’re subsidized at.”

This notion, that independent school parents are completely insensitive to price changes, suggests that these parents are so wealthy that money is no object. This contradicts Stinn’s claim that removing government support would burden independent school families.

So who’s right?

New evidence from neighbouring British Columbia sheds light on the answer. Similar to Alberta, B.C. provides funding for the vast majority (at least 87.9 per cent) of independent schools with a per-student grant ranging from 35 to 50 per cent of what is given to government-run schools.

A recent study found just 8.2 per cent of all independent schools in B.C. can be reasonably categorized as elite prep schools. In fact, the majority of independent schools in B.C. are either religiously oriented or specialty schools that emphasize particular subject areas or alternative pedagogical approaches.

A second recently published study compares the incomes of families that send their children to public schools with independent school families in B.C. The results may surprise you.

Of course, families with children in elite independent prep schools do indeed 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—a different picture emerges. Families with kids at these non-elite independent schools have an average after-tax income of $78,894 compared to $77,396 for families with kids in public school. The gap between the two is just 1.9 per cent.

These data disprove the notion that government support for independent schools amounts to a “handout to the rich,” at least in B.C. According to the evidence, independent school families are scattered throughout the income spectrum and partial funding supports many families that need the help.

To be sure, this data on average incomes is drawn from B.C. so it’s not clear there would be identical results in Alberta. There are important differences between the education systems in the two provinces (for example, Alberta fully funds Catholic education in the public system whereas B.C. does not).

However, compared to B.C., an even smaller share of independent schools in Alberta (just 4.8 per cent) are elite prep schools. This strongly suggests the notion nearly all independent school families are wealthy is a misguided stereotype in Alberta, just like in B.C.

The contentious and important debate over government funding for independent schools in Alberta should always be informed by the best possible evidence. The new data from B.C. illuminates a question at the very heart of that debate by proving that funding for independent schools helps all kinds of families—not just the wealthy.

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