Independent schools ensure BC parents have a choice

British Columbia offers one of the more unique and successful models of education in Canada

By Jason Clemens
Milagros Palacios
and Mark Milke
The Fraser Institute

VANCOUVER, BC, and CALGARY, AB, Mar 5, 2014/ Troy Media/ – As students and teachers get ready to enjoy spring break and a reprieve from school, it’s timely to take stock of the state of education in British Columbia.

There is no question that a great education is essential to success in the 21st century. Completing high school, for example, markedly reduces the chances of unemployment or the probability of remaining trapped in low-income jobs.

The importance of education to a child’s future success explains the increasing interest on the part of parents, and therefore politicians, in ensuring not only a functioning but thriving education system. Supporting parents in choosing their children’s education and fostering competition between schools is vital to such efforts.

Evidence continues to mount on the broad benefits of parents having educational choices for their children and the competition between schools that this implies. Going back to ground-breaking work completed by then Harvard professor Caroline Hoxby in the early 1990s through to research published in 2014, the findings increasingly show that empowering parents and forcing schools to compete benefits students, the broad education system including public schools, the broader economy, and even teachers themselves.

One of the key drivers of success in Canada has been the decentralized nature of K-12 education. Outside of Aboriginal education, there is no role for the federal government. This means the provinces have the authority and responsibility to experiment with different models of education financing, regulation, and delivery.

British Columbia offers one of the more unique and successful models of education in Canada. Unlike several other provinces, British Columbia relies on a vibrant independent school sector to deliver much of the choice to parents needed to ensure education success.

Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, for instance, all rely on multiple competing public school systems to provide choice. All three provinces offer at least three competing public schools: public English, public French, and Catholic English. Alberta and Ontario also offer a Catholic French alternative within the public school system. A small number of Protestant schools are also provided in each of these provinces. So, depending on your province and city, you could have up to five public schools competing for students.

Alberta also augments its public system with charter schools, part of the public system and fully funded by taxpayers. They are different than public schools in that they have more flexibility in setting curriculum, and hiring and firing teachers.

British Columbia, on the other hand, relies on a vibrant independent school system. B.C.’s public system is essentially English only, with just under one per cent of B.C. students attending a public Francophone school.

Parental choice and school competition are largely provided by independent schools, which constitute alternatives to the public system based on different teaching approaches, religious and language focus, and specialized learning. One in eight B.C. students attends an independent school. This is the highest level of independent school enrolment in the country with the exception of Quebec (12.5 per cent).

Interestingly, public school enrolment in B.C. has actually declined by just over 11 per cent since peaking in 1997-98. During the same period, independent school enrolment has increased by more than 22 per cent. And as a recent study showed, there is tremendous demand for independent schools: 57.3 per cent of independent schools in the Lower Mainland reported waiting lists for admittance.

Unlike Ontario and the Atlantic provinces, B.C. provides public assistance to independent schools, providing up to 50 per cent of the operating costs per student. Quebec and the other western provinces maintain a similar approach to supporting independent schools.

Parental choice in education, which necessitates competition between schools, is a central, required element of a well-functioning, productive education system. Thankfully, many Canadian provinces, including B.C., offer parents choices in their children’s education. More can be done though by learning lessons from both other Canadian provinces as well as internationally.

Jason Clemens and Milagros Palacios are co-author of Measuring Choice and Competition in Canadian Education, recently released by the Fraser Institute; Mark Milke is a Senior Fellow at the Fraser Institute.

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