The federation’s case against subsidies for independent schools goes like this: B.C.’s public schools are chronically underfunded. The redirection of provincial subsidies from private to public schools would help alleviate funding shortfalls and remedy some of the problems – such as the loss of specialist teachers and school closures – that school districts face.
The federation (BCTF) wants British Columbians to believe that the independent school system is receiving “unacceptable increases of public subsidy,” according to group president Jim Iker. The narrative insinuates that public funding of independent schools undermines the public school system and is a step towards the privatization of education.
Is the narrative correct?
The BCTF refers to all independent schools as “private.” The term “private school” is misleading when speaking about B.C.’s independent schools. “Private school” conjures up elite educational institutions for the privileged where parents pay buckets of money to give their children a leg up in the world. Only about five percent of independent schools in B.C. are “private,” according to this definition. Faith-based schools and schools that offer different teaching or learning styles, such as Montessori schools, are the most common type of independent school.
Referring to all independent schools as “private” fuels resentment against independent schools, which serve many children and communities well. It leads people to wrongly assume that B.C. has a two-tier system of education that favours the wealthy. In fact, partial government funding for a child’s education in the independent system removes barriers to access for many families.
For funding purposes, two categories of independent schools receive grants. Group 1 schools receive 50 percent of the per-student funding that public schools receive. These schools spend the same or less as the local school district to educate a student. Group 2 schools receive 35 percent, and spend more per student. Independent schools assume full fiscal responsibility for building, equipment and land; there are no public grants for capital costs. The operating grant to independent schools is about $341 million of the $5.6 billion that B.C. spends on education a year, or about six percent of the total, and services approximately 13 percent of the province’s student body. In fact, then, those students cost the government less per pupil than do those in the public system.
This funding formula has been in effect for 25 years. Contrary to Iker’s assertion, there has not been an increase in the public subsidy to independent schools. More taxpayer dollars are going to independent schools because student enrolment has increased, not because the government has increased the per-pupil operating grant.
Independent schools in no way undermine or threaten a healthy public school system. The two systems have co-existed since the establishment of B.C.’s first Catholic schools in the mid-1800s. There is a synergy between the two that inspires individual schools to provide the best possible learning environments for their students. Having two systems keeps everyone on their toes.
Without independent schools, the public schools would have a monopoly on education. A monopoly is rarely a good thing. It can encourage complacency and a lack of accountability, and it limits choice, upon which our society places a high value.
Parental choice in education is a right recognized in practice and in international law. In a recent interview, Iker said, “We have no issue of parents choosing which school they want to but it should not be subsidized by any public dollars.” While that position may be appealing in fiscally challenging times, it is contrary to the spirit of parental choice in a democracy, and would effectively eliminate Group 1 schools.
Without public dollars, the majority of Group 1 schools, which are more cash strapped than their public school counterparts, would have to close their doors. That could send 60,000 students into a system that, according to the BCTF, is chronically underfunded. The government would need to come up with 50 percent more funding for operating costs, to say nothing of the money required for capital costs.
As a former educator, parent and volunteer with experience in the public and Catholic school systems, I have seen the value of both for students. The two systems provide different learning environments for children and parents of diverse needs. Options in education are good for children and serve society well.
When it comes to education, one size does not fit all. Taking from Peter to give to Paul is not the solution for a lack of public school funding, nor would it improve the quality of our children’s education.
Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.