BC Transfer of Public Money to Private Schools:Subsidizing Inequality

(Published in the Lower Island News, June 2016.)

Recently I spoke with a man whose child attends private school here in my city. He did not know that public money subsidizes his child’s small classes, the main reason he placed her there.

Public Money Subsidizes Private Schools in BC: Supporting Inequality

As the year counts down to the next provincial election, voters need to be clear on changes needed to ensure K-12 public education in British Columbia thrives. It’s clear that neglect of public goods, including public schools,  in favour of privatization a la the UK “Innovation Unit” has been and continues to be the agenda of the BC Liberals. Regardless of the Province’s announcements of “highest funding ever”, School Trustees have noticed that expenses are highest ever as well, and many costs have been recently offloaded to School Districts by the Ministry of Education.

Not only does BC subsidize private schools with public money – in February 2015, Premier Christy Clark named a new Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Education for Independent Schools (private schools).

The Road to Privatization

The push to expand “choice” in BC public schools is the signpost pointing to Charter Schools  and privatization. Specialty “Academies” already pull students from neighbourhood schools and charge fees within the public system, on occasion hiring non-union staff to deliver instruction. Where are the votes at public School Board tables against the proliferation of “special” programs when they require more  resources than “less special” classrooms? The immediately attractive “choice” scenarios may have long run negative consequences.

Underfunding public education sets up schools to compete against each other in the “choice” arena for the dollars that are attached to each student.  There is  no such thing as a “public good” in this ideology, only customers who go school shopping in the marketplace, and who respond to glitzy school promotion events every spring as public schools make  desperate efforts to attract students away from their neighbourhood schools.  Then some schools are left under capacity, subject to the sudden BC Liberal demand that schools operate at 95% capacity, unfolding in Vancouver, which allows the Province to dictate that Boards close schools serving a temporarily small community of learners.

Niche schools (such as Academies) in the public system are exclusionary, with transportation out of their catchment area to a “program of choice” being highly problematic for some students. No student should have to leave their neighbourhood school to find excellence in fine arts, intellectual challenge, or any other interestParents and should not have to go school shopping in a properly funded public education system

Diverting public tax dollars to fund advantage (smaller class sizes for one) for a select group is obviously counter to the principle of equity and undermines  the value of public education which is our society’s most visibly equity-based institutions.  Should schools that take public money have the right to screen out students based on academic performance or ability to pay? BC now has a two tier education system which has built in exclusion from  opportunity based on income and parental ability to jump through the hoops for private school entry. Choice in this context is available only those who are in a position to make one.

As well, private schools may require academic testing in order to get access, yet another exclusionary filter. That’s why some of the elite university prep private schools (like St George’s the school the Premier’s son attends) can say 99 to 100 per cent of their graduates go to university.

Subsidizing private schools in BC with public money has been going on for more than 40 years. During the 1950s and 1960s, Socred premier W.A.C. Bennett refused to fund private schools with public money, but his son Bill changed that when he became premier, and instituted provincial funding for private schools in 1977. There were 176 private schools in BC in 1969-70.  There are now 350 private schools across the province, in  2014-15, in 2014 registering 80,783 students. Public schools serve 552,788 students. In 2015, 13 per cent of B.C. kindergarten to Grade 12 students were enrolled in independent schools.

Provincial (public) funding for private schools increased by 16.9% cent between 2005 and 2014, while the private system’s funding increased by 45.6% in the 2014 budget, taking money that the public system could use.  Private schools in B.C. received almost $315 million in provincial funding for the 2013-14 academic year,  up from $295 million in 2012-13 and $251 million in 2009-10. This year, BC Libs gave $358 million to private schools.   If all planned funding increases go ahead for next school year, private school funding will have gone up by 93 per cent since 2005.

In Alberta, private schools receive 70% of the per-student amount paid to public schools, the highest in Canada. Alberta has instituted Charter Schools as well, which began as an experiment in 1990, and which are funded as public schools.  A recent Alberta poll indicated 61% of Albertans don’t want public money supporting private schools. It would be interesting to see what the BC results would be. The Edmonton Public School Board sent a letter urging the Alberta NDP to phase out the public subsidy for private schools and return that money to public school boards. Edmonton Public Schools Trustee Michael Janz said “If a parent wants to choose a different program or educational journey, or even a boarding school, that is their right to choose and pay for themselves.”

Private School Funding Categories

The Federation of Independent Schools Associations  BC  (voluntary school membership) has been operating for 50- years and represents schools which are  religion-based schools, prep schools, schools for students with special needs and other independent schools.  There are 350 independent schools in B.C., with more than 80,000 students.

Enrolment is growing, particularly among the small schools that belong to the Associate Member Group, which makes up 25% of all independent school enrolment. Catholic schools account for about 27 per cent, while two Christian associations account for about 31 per cent combined. A  smaller percentage includes Jewish, Muslim and Sikh and “other” religious schools. The remainder, about 16 per cent, are in the Independent Schools Association, which emphasizes academic preparation.

Private schools are grouped into four categories in BC (full explanation on the Ministry of Education page “Classification of Independent Schools”) , determined by the comparison of the independent school’s average per student operating costs with the local School District’s average per student operating grant amount. Group 1 gets  50 % of the local district’s per-student grant amount.  If the independent school’s per student operating costs exceeds the district’s per student grant amount, then the school is designated Group 2, which gets  35 % of the local district’s per-student grant amount. The independent school grant can only be used to pay for operating expenses.

Group 1 schools employ B.C.-certified teachers, have educational programs consistent with Ministerial orders and provide programs that meet the learning outcomes of the B.C. curriculum. In  2012/13 and 2013/14, Group 1 Independent Distance Learning  Schools received 63 %of the Distance Learning  Public School flat rate.  Group 2 schools meet the same requirements as Group 1 schools but are typically elite prep schools with high operating costs.  Group 2 Independent DL Schools received 44.1 %of the DL Public School Flat rate. Groups 3 schools  are not required to meet the Group 1 requirements. Group 4 schools, for mainly non-provincial students, receive no funding.


Some private school tuition can be claimed for a tax break. Tuition at a private  school offering both academic and religious education may be eligible for a significant tax credit for tuition as a charitable contribution. If a school’s facilities, equipment or personnel are required due to the student’s mental or physical needs, the tuition can be claimed. A portion of  fees that relate to child care services for students under age 16 may be deductible as a child care expense based on that portion of the day that involves supervision and is not related to academic instruction, such as lunchtime supervision.

Reportedly, some schools have set  tuition amounts unusually low but “request a donation” to the school. Numerous CRA audits have resulted from this practise.


Every public school district receives a provincial per student operating grant, plus additional amounts for unique student needs, some of which require a District school psychologist assessment of  the student in order to qualify for a Ministry special education funding category placement, which may result in additional support, such as usually partial FTE of an education assistant.  (See the Ministry page “Special Education Programs and Funding – Independent Schools” for special education grants to private schools. )

In a private school the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) eligible students enrolled is also a key component to calculating school. A full grant of public money is paid for each full-time student who is enrolled for a minimum of 600 hours from July 1 to May 15 of the school year. Partial grants of public money are paid for eligible partial FTE students who receive less than 600 hours of instruction.

Municipal Taxes

On the very last day of the B.C. Legislature’s spring session, the BC Liberals tabled  Bill 29, a Bill  to prevent municipalities from charging private schools property tax. BC Liberal Finance Minister Mike de Jong was apparently concerned about the possibility of cities and towns applying property taxes on private schools’ non-classroom facilities (classroom space is already tax-exempt). This is an unconscionable  priority, given the significant challenges public school students, teachers and staff face from government underfunding.

In debate, Green MLA Andrew Weaver demanded that BC “treat independent schools the same as public schools” and  ensure that there is “consistent treatment across the province with respect to the way independent schools are subjected to municipal property taxation”. Weaver went on to explain that  Bill 29 would  allow private schools to claim not only the land immediately under a school building but other land as well –  surrounding property, including fields, tracks, athletic centres, drop-off areas, parking lots and maintenance facilities. (The land underneath an actual private school building has been tax-exempt since 1957, under government legislation. Public schools are already tax-exempt. )  Weaver continued: “In summary, then, first off I would like to recognize that we do have an outstanding education system. It does not help our education system when we continue to bemoan the problems in it instead of celebrating the successes in it. Sure, there are problems in our education system. There are problems in everything around us. But we will not move this education system forward if all we do is fixate on the negative that’s in it. Secondly, I think fairness is critical. This bill provides fairness, recognizing that there are other provinces where independent schools, like the Catholic system, are actually part of the public system, whereas in B.C. we’ve never had Catholic school boards.”

What’s the take-away? Don’t identify problems, don’t persist with calling attention to problems – like serious ideologically-driven underfunding?  Institute  an official religion-based (just Catholic, though) School Board?

Bill 29  was approved unanimously in the Legislature on September 30 and received Royal Assent on   November 17, 2015. This means that all property that is reasonably necessary for providing   an educational program equivalent to the public sector will now receive a statutory property tax   exemption. Any additional lands, such as endowment land, holding property or adjacent land   that is currently not used for instruction, may still be granted a permissive exemption from the   municipality under the   Community Charter  , s 224, h.1, at the request of the independent school authority.

NDP critic Rob Fleming said the private school deal shouldn’t occur during a time of funding cuts to public schools. “It’s staggering to me that the government can award additional tax exemptions to private schools,” he said. “It’s a complete double standard to say public schools need to tighten their belts and slash programs while the government suggests we can afford more subsidies to private school.”

In 2012, the City of Victoria overhauled its tax exemption policies, linking most private school tax exemptions to the level of provincial operating funds they receive, typically 50 per cent. As allowed by the  Community Charter which permits exemption from municipal taxes, the City of Victoria granted  Glenlyon Norfolk School a 2014  tax exemption of $41,028. (Attending Glenlyon for Grades 6 through 12 costs between $16,040 and $17,430 per year.  In 2011, the school posted a $986,631 surplus. )


Private school defenders claim they are helping the public system since private school customers   still pay taxes for the public system, plus the extra costs for private school, sparing the public system the  costs of 76,000 students. But the Province is obligated to provide a free (becoming  a joke, with school fees all over public schools) appropriate education for every student.

Both John Horgan and Rob Fleming, leader and education critic respectively for the  BC NDP,  have publicly approved of the funding status quo.

BC School Trustees (although the BCSTA has taken issue with government subsidies to private schools, did not unanimously vote in favour of an Alberni District trustee’s  motion to end public subsidies of private schools in BC, at the April BCSTA AGM. So some public school trustees are in favour of public subsidies to private schools. Isn’t that some sort of conflict of interest from elected people whose mandate in BCSTA Bylaw is to” represent the public interest in public school education”? 

Children have a right to an accessible, quality education that does not depend on family socioeconomic status. BC public schools struggle with provincially-imposed budget cuts and unexpected downloads, loss of staff and services, while the  continuing transfer of critical public resources to the private sector continues.  


st georges

St George’s School for Boys in Vancouver, clearly in need of public subsidy


Open letter to Calgary Herald editorial board: Support Our Students Alberta·Sunday, April 17, 2016



Independent School Distributed Learning (DL) 

 Funding Rates for Independent Schools 2012/13 – Preliminary (p 3)

Special Education Grant Levels and Specific Categories

Grant Payment Order (PDF)

Independent School Regulation sections 2 (PDF)

Grant for Home Schooled Children Order (PDF)

Per FTE Student Cost Order (PDF)

Funding Resources

K-12 Data Collection


Independent school lobbying behind call to close schools: Bacchus

BC’s Education Brownout

FISA numbers






http://www.vicnews.com/news/149751035.html: Tax break for Glenlyon Norfolk school sparks opposition


Vancouver District Parents Advisory Council



Private School Expos






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