Independent schools offer choice and quality, not elitism

Discussions about B.C.'s vibrant independent education community should focus on what those schools offer families, not on ill-informed stereotypes

By Jason Clemens
and Sasha Parvani
The Fraser Institute

VANCOUVER, B.C. Mar. 31, 2017 /Troy Media/ – Debate about how best to provide education for British Columbia’s children should be front and centre as the province nears a general election. But that debate shouldn’t sink to ill-informed stereotypes when the subject of independent schools is raised.

When many British Columbians hear the terms “private schools” and “independent schools,” they think of elite (and expensive) preparatory schools that cater to the wealthiest. This simply doesn’t reflect the reality of the province’s independent school sector.

Only Quebec has a larger share of its kindergarten-to-Grade-12 students enrolled in independent schools. In 2013-14, the most recent year of available data, 75,402 students were enrolled in independent schools in B.C., or 12.3 per cent of all kindergarten to Grade 12 students in the province.

Independent schools
Jason Clemens

The data shows that elite schools make up only a small share of the total independent schools in the province. A recent study, A Diverse Landscape: Independent Schools in Canada, provided an in-depth categorization of all such schools in Canada. It concluded that only 28 (or 8.2 per cent) of the B.C.’s 340 independent schools were elite preparatory schools.

That means more than 90 per cent of the independent schools in B.C. don’t cater to an elite. Rather, they serve average British Columbians, who for a variety of reasons want their children educated outside the government system. The two most prominent explanations are religion, and alternative or specialty education.

B.C.’s government school system doesn’t offer any religious education options. Parents who want their children educated within a religiously-oriented environment must choose independent schools. According to the study noted above, 55.3 per cent of independent schools in B.C. had a religious orientation.

One-fifth of independent institutions in B.C. are categorized as specialty schools that address specific curriculum and pedagogical preferences. Waldorf schools, Montessori schools, special-needs education, as well as schools focusing on specific subject matter such as arts, athletics or STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fall within this categorization.

Independent schools
Sasha Parvani

However, the idea that independent schools cater to wealthy British Columbians persists.

Some suggest that while not all independent schools are elite preparatory institutions, the parents who choose independent schools are still affluent compared to parents choosing government schools.

A recent study refutes this claim. Using B.C. Ministry of Education and Statistics Canada data, the study examined the average after-tax income for families choosing public schools versus those with children in independent schools.

At first blush, it does appear that families with children in independent schools have higher income: $88,367 (after taxes) compared to $77,396, on average, for families with children in public schools.

However, that analysis includes families with children at elite schools. If those families are removed, the average after-tax income for the remaining families with children attending independent schools falls to $78,894, just 1.9 per cent above the average income for families with children in public schools. So families choosing non-elite independent schools have essentially the same income as those choosing public schools.

B.C.’s reliance on independent schools to provide the diversity and choice demanded and preferred by an increasing share of parents has been a strength for one of the country’s best kindergarten-to-Grade-12 systems.

Discussing how best to improve that system is worthwhile, but the discussion must be based on facts not ill-informed stereotypes.

Jason Clemens and Sasha Parvani are analysts with the Fraser Institute and co-authors of Comparing Family Income for Independent Schools versus Public Schools in British Columbia.

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