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Angela MacLeodFor some students, the end of the school year means saying goodbye to one school and hello to another, so it’s an opportune moment for parents to reflect on school choice.

In British Columbia, independent schools – operating outside the public system – provide the bulk of educational choice. There are many benefits to the B.C. model of educational delivery, but they’re often ignored by those who prefer less choice and advocate for a more homogenous system.

Because kindergarten-to-Grade-12 education is a provincial responsibility, there are different delivery and financing approaches across Canada.

For instance, Alberta offers considerable education choice for parents through competing public schools. Fully-funded Catholic schools are available through the separate system, and religious schools (Christian, Jewish and Islamic) are also available within the public system. Alberta is also the only province to offer specialized education through charter schools, which are semi-independent schools operated within the public system.

In contrast, B.C. doesn’t provide any religious and almost no specialized education in the public system.

B.C. does, however, support parents who choose qualifying independent schools by providing funding of either 35 of 50 percent of the per-student operating amount provided to public schools. This helps keep independent schools accessible to middle- and even some lower-income families.

A recent analysis found that the after-tax incomes of families who choose non-elite independent schools were essentially the same to those with children attending public schools. In 2013-14, only 8.2 percent of B.C.’s independent schools were categorized as elite, which are typically university prep schools that charge significant tuition rates

By contrast, non-elite independent schools in B.C. tend to offer a wider range of religious and pedagogical approaches not available in the public system. And parents are responding. Roughly one-in-eight kindergarten-to-Grade-12 students in B.C. now attend an independent school and the trend is increasing.

But independent schools deliver more than just diversity in education. In a new study, the Fraser Institute examined school performance on the province’s standardized tests and compared the results between public, elite and non-elite independent schools with the same approach used to compare family income levels.

In 10 of the 11 tests included in the analysis, students at non-elite independent schools outperformed their public school counterparts by a significant margin, including in all six Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA) tests in elementary school and all five provincial exams, though the difference for English 12 was not significant.

The largest differences were in the elementary FSA tests, particularly for writing and numeracy. The gaps in performance were smaller, though still meaningful, for the provincial exams administered for secondary students. (Students at elite independent schools outperformed students at both public and non-elite independent schools on all 11 exams by a significant amount.)

The reality of kindergarten-t0-Grade-12 education in B.C. is that independent schools deliver much of the choice and parents are increasingly choosing those schools for their children’s education.

The results of several studies show that those choices may be rooted in not only religious or alternative pedagogies, but also in better educational outcomes for families of all income levels.

Angela MacLeod is an analyst with the Fraser Institute.

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