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Why Are BC's Independent Schools Getting So Much Money?

Private school funding is increasing three times faster than support for public schools. The Tyee explores why.

By Katie Hyslop 17 May 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop is The Tyee's education and youth reporter.

The Tyee is soliciting reader support to fund a year-long series that will send Katie around B.C. to document the struggles and aspirations of young people, and to gather their creative thinking about what needs changing.

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BC Teachers' Federation posts on Facebook -- more than a dozen in May -- usually get a few dozen likes or shares.

But one recent post hit a nerve, inspiring over 8,600 shares, 6,300 comments and reaching about 600,000 people so far.

''This year, B.C. gave $358 million to private schools, including those for the super-elite. Meanwhile, Osoyoos is being forced to close its high school because of government underfunding,'' read the text superimposed on photos of St. Michaels University School, where tuition for Canadian students runs upwards of $21,000 a year, and Osoyoos Secondary School, the community's only high school slated for closure because of falling enrolment. Parents are reportedly planning to open an independent high school rather than have students bus 22 kilometres to a school in Oliver.

''When B.C. communities like Osoyoos are being forced to close their only high school, why are B.C. taxpayers subsidizing elite private schools?'' the teachers' union asked in its post.

The provincial government has been subsidizing independent schools since 1977. The NDP has said it wouldn't change the funding formula if elected next May.

But half of B.C.'s 60 public school boards are grappling with deficits that reach a combined $84 million. They are closing schools and cutting programs, including supports for vulnerable students.

And the public appetite for funding private schools appears to be waning, at least among the parents, educators, and trustees in districts like Vancouver, Chilliwack, and Okanagan Similkameen -- which includes Osoyoos -- that are facing budget shortfalls.

Since 2005, government funding for independent schools has increased by 66 per cent. Funding for public schools has risen by 19 per cent.

There are two levels of funding for independent schools, based on how much they spend per student. Group 1 schools spend the same or less than public schools, and receive 50 per cent of the per-student funding of public schools. Group 2 schools spend more per student than public schools and receive 35 per cent of the public school funding.

Independent schools receive the same funding as public schools for special needs students, distributed learning or online education and the Provincial Learning Network, the province's high-speed Internet connection.

Independent schools don't get public funds for capital expenses, like new buildings. But last year the government gave them a property tax break.

More students equal more money

Independent schools are getting more money -- a budgeted $358 million last year -- because they are attracting more students. Peter Froese, executive director of the Federation of Independent Schools Associations of BC, said that independent schools have seen an increase of 15,000 students since 2005/06, while public schools have lost 60,000 students.

The funding protection offered to public districts with dropping enrolment, known as the Enrollment Decline supplement, is included in the per student funding calculation to the benefit of both the public district and the independent schools who sit within those districts' bounds.

Cuts that public school districts are forced to make, like the $54 million districts were asked to cut in administrative spending, do impact the amount of money independent schools receive, too, Froese added.

So do funding freezes or minimal increases: ''In the public sector we had 6,600 extra students this last year, but the government didn't put a ton of extra money into education. It lowered the per student [funding] in many of the districts, and that dropped the grant in 32 of the districts for independent schools.''

The education ministry says ''the funding formula for independent schools has not changed in 25 years. Increases in funding are tied to the per pupil rate (which is rising) and any enrolment increases.''

But that's not how the teachers' union sees it. The union made headlines in February 2015 when it released a report alleging the $82-million Labour Settlement Fund was added into per-student funding when calculating independent school subsidies. The result, the union said, was a $5-million boost to private schools.

In another emailed statement, this time to News 1130, then-education minister Peter Fassbender wrote the union's allegations were ''completely wrong.''

''The fact is, we've seen average per student funding for public schools increase by 40 per cent since 2000/01, to an estimated $8,819 for 2014-15 enrolment,'' read the statement. ''We need to focus on student outcomes, not unnecessary and unhelpful distractions.''

The BCTF report also says the Unique Student Needs supplement -- funding for indigenous students, students learning English, adult learners and other vulnerable students -- is included in calculating per-student funding. Independent schools benefit even if they have no students requiring those services.

Froese said that pulling funding from independent schools wouldn't help the public system. The Group 2 schools -- about 15 per cent of the association's members -- could raise tuition fees and survive. But the majority of Group 1 schools relying on grants at 50 per cent of per-student funding in the public system would close, he said, sending roughly 60,000 students back to the public system.

Costs would double for those students, as their independent schools had been funded at half the public school rate.

BCTF President Jim Iker said the union never claimed that pulling public funds from private schools would be enough to cover shortfalls in the public system. Overall education funding needs to increase, he said.

''There would be more students to fund, and then perhaps districts wouldn't have to be closing schools,'' Iker said. Vancouver is considering closing up to 21 schools to save money and reach the 95-per-cent district classroom occupancy required to receive money to make schools safer in an earthquake.

The return of students -- and the grants that come with them -- could allow for the restoration of some services lost to budget cuts, Iker said.  [Tyee]

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