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BC Politics

What's Behind BC's Tax Gift to Private Schools?

New exemption appears lifted from a Republican playbook.

Bill Tieleman 2 Jun

Bill Tieleman is a former NDP strategist whose clients include unions and businesses in the resource and public sector. Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at [email protected] or visit his blog.

"Competition is what's really going to change our public schools. It's the only thing that's going to force them to become better schools because they're going to lose students if they don't." -- Republican Nevada Assemblywoman Jill Dickman

The BC Liberals launched a surprise attack on public schools on the very last day of the B.C. Legislature's spring session, tabling Bill 29 to prevent municipalities from charging private schools property tax.

The legislation's first reading on May 28 "delighted" private school reps. Once again it shows the provincial government's equal delight in bashing public education at every opportunity.

And while the BC Liberals have not yet taken the draconian steps Nevada's Republican government has to undermine public schools by giving their existing funding to private institutions, questions must be raised about their intentions.

BC Liberal Finance Minister Mike de Jong apparently worried that cash-strapped cities and towns might apply property taxes on private schools' non-classroom facilities -- since classroom space is already tax-exempt.

"These amendments will ensure that independent school properties, such as playgrounds, playing fields and athletic facilities, will not be subject to property tax in the future," de Jong told the Legislature last Thursday.

An unbelievable priority, given B.C.'s terrible child poverty rate, the appalling record of kids dying while in the care of the Ministry of Children and Family Development or the significant challenges public school students, teachers and staff face from government underfunding.

The absurdity of Premier Christy Clark's government acting quickly on something that hasn't happened while ignoring real disasters occurring all around them would be black humour -- were it not for what lies behind it.

'Choice' for the wealthy

Right-wing governments like Nevada's are intent on devastating public education by taking away state funding and giving it to private schools.

Under the rubric of "choice" Nevada's public education system is being defunded, potentially leaving only those students whose parents cannot afford additional tuition fees still attending public schools.

"This bill actually siphons money away from our public school system and gives it to private schools," says Nevada Democrat Assemblywoman Amber Joiner, who voted against the legislation there last week. "That's at a time when our schools can least afford it, and what we're trying to do is support them more than we ever had before."

Here in B.C., private schools have received increasingly more public funding: $311 million in 2014-15 -- a whopping 61.1 per cent increase since 2005-06 -- and more than triple the 19.7 per cent rise in public education funding during the same period, according to a B.C. teachers union budget analysis.

Currently 13 per cent of B.C. kindergarten to Grade 12 students are enrolled in independent schools, which include private and religious institutions, an increase of 5,000 this year.

Given that boost in tuition fees and ongoing government funding increases, one might presume private schools are doing just fine -- so why worry about hypothetical municipal property taxes? What is the reason for hurriedly giving first reading to the Property Taxation (Exemptions) Statutes Amendment Act?

After all, even if the almost 300 private schools in B.C. had their non-classroom properties taxed, the total bill would be $5 million, according to Peter Froese, Federation of Independent School Associations executive director.

Not welcome, but hardly an urgent matter, even for Clark -- whose son attends the private St. George's School in Vancouver, where annual fees are over $22,000 for Grades 8 to 12.

But the motivation for the BC Liberal legislation may be part of an ongoing crisis for private schools worldwide.

Elite feel the pinch

New research in the United Kingdom shows that private school tuition fees are the least affordable since the 1960s.

"The numbers show that for all but the wealthiest 10 per cent of the workforce, fees for the average day school are now more than a quarter of a year's pre-tax pay -- compared with less than one-seventh back in 1968," The Telegraph newspaper reported May 29.

In the U.K. the average fees in 2015 are $29,500 per student, with prestigious private schools charging over double that.

And costs to educate the elite are going up.

"These days, parents want far more for their children than their own bed and the voice of a distant master in a huge schoolroom. They want the latest in modern accommodation and state-of-the-art sports equipment, and -- the most costly requirement of all -- tiny pupil-teacher ratios," says David Turner, author of The Old Boys, a history of English private schools.

"Private schools are generally pretty efficient, but this all costs money," says Turner, whose book studied the affordability of school fees throughout history.

There's also another problem facing private schools -- they aren't worth the cost for the results, according to some experts.

"The fact that private schools confer no material or educational benefit in comparison to good public schools is becoming widely known and must be sending a shiver of panic down the spines of private school boards," says Mem Fox, a noted Australian education professor and author of the country's most popular children's book, Possum Magic.

"Any minute now, surely, they'll be sprung for false advertising," Fox told a teachers' union gathering last week. "As Waleed Aly said [recently], sending your kids to a private school is like buying a new BMW each year and driving it into a wall."

Ouch. Not exactly the kind of comments that will get wealthy parents parting with big bucks that could instead be spent on luxury cars.

Clearly private schools need a helping hand -- and have found one in the BC Liberals.

And while British Columbia isn't Nevada, this B.C. government is looking far more Republican than liberal on public education.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, BC Politics

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