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Looking Back and Looking Forward on Education in BC

Here in British Columbia, we recently wrapped up our Fall Tour presentations where we briefly mentioned the topic of education. But we didn’t have time to do the topic justice. The Christian community in British Columbia needs to spend some time looking at the trajectory of Christian education so that we can be proactive to ensure that we are able to raise and educate our children in the fear of the LORD in the coming decades.

David Hunt and Deani van Pelt, researchers at the Christian think tank Cardus, recently wrote that, “of Canadian provinces, British Columbia arguably has the most balanced and robust approach to independent school funding and regulation.”[1] That’s quite a statement. Is it true? And if it is, how can we make sure this continues?

Let’s look at developments in British Columbia’s educational history, evaluate where we stand now, and prepare for the future.

Looking Back

British Columbia didn’t always have a system of education conducive to Christian education. The first schools in British Columbia were run and paid for by a variety of actors; the Anglican and Catholic church, local governments, parents, and even the dominant businesses of the time, such as the Hudson’s Bay Company. By the mid-1800s, the provincial government largely took over education in British Columbia with the passage of the Common School Act in 1865, the Free Public School Act of 1872, the Public School Act in 1872, and the School Tax Bill of 1876. Although these schools began on a Christian basis, this Christian foundation flagged by the 1920s. Today, the Schools Act stipulates that all public schools “must be conducted on strictly secular and non-sectarian principles” and that “no religious dogma or creed is to be taught in a [public] school.”

After the provincial government largely took over responsibility for education, some schools continued to operate independently (particularly Catholic schools), but few thrived until 1977 when the Independent Schools Support Act radically changed the nature of British Columbia’s education system for the better. The strength of British Columbia’s current independent education system rests on three main factors: independence, accreditation, and public funding.

Independence

Independent schools in British Columbia are by and large and as the name suggests, independent. While most Christian schools give up some independence in exchange for public accreditation and public funding (these are called Group 1 independent schools), they retain a significant level of freedom over how they meet the standards set by the provincial government. For example, even the independent schools that are subject to the most government regulation (these Group 1 schools) have the flexibility to develop their own curriculum, hire credentialed teachers based on their own standards (and even hire non-credential teachers if necessity requires it), control their own admission policies, and teach from a distinctly Christian worldview.

If Christians seek to maximize independence as much as possible, Christians can also set up Group 3 independent schools, which have almost unfettered independence to teach and operate as they see fit, with the trade-off that they do not receive any public funding and they cannot award a Dogwood diploma. Alternatively, parents can choose to homeschool their children free from any government influence.

(For those who are curious, Group 2 independent schools are “elite” schools whose per student tuition is higher than the average spending per public school student. They largely follow the same regulations as Group 1 independents schools but receive less public funding. Group 4 schools primarily serve international or out-of-province schools.)

Accreditation

Accreditation mostly refers to the ability of a school to award a Dogwood diploma, the official certificate of graduation from high school in British Columbia. Now, a Dogwood diploma isn’t necessary per se; most universities and employers accommodate students who choose not to complete high school, attend Group 3 independent schools, or are registered homeschoolers. But an official Dogwood diploma certainly allows for a smoother transition into university or college, particularly for interprovincial or international education.

Funding

Many independent schools also receive public funding. Although the level of funding varies by the type or classification of independent schools, the vast majority of Christian schools are Group 1 independent schools, meaning that they receive 50% of the operational funding that their public counterparts receive. This applies to both brick-and-mortar and distributed learning independent schools. By comparison, independent schools in Ontario receive no public funding, and independent schools in Alberta have a more complicated and intrusive method of calculating grants from the government.

Of these three strengths in British Columbia’s education system, independence is the most important factor. This is what gives us the freedom to teach from a distinctly Christian perspective. But we shouldn’t dismiss the benefits of public accreditation and public funding either. Together, they provide convenience and legitimacy.

Of course, Christian students, parents, and teachers ultimately do not need the approval of the government to recognize the legitimacy of Christian education. But Christians can embrace this opportunity provided by our government because it makes Christian education more attainable for more parents. Many Christian parents outside of Reformed churches cite the high cost of Christian education as one reason they send their children to a public school instead. If Christian schools can lower their tuition because they receive some public funding, more parents will be able to afford to send their children to Christian schools. And Christian parents who would send their children to a Christian school regardless of the financial cost can redirect these savings to other worthwhile causes.

But even more importantly, what the civil government funds and accredits – rightly or wrongly – helps shape a public narrative about what is a public good for society. Rather than simply tolerating Christian education, the provincial government approves of it and legitimizes it in the public eye through accreditation and funding. Again, Christian schools ultimately don’t need the approval of governments but, if Christian schools can receive that approval without compromising their biblical foundations, this approval can encourage more parents to use Christian education and can help the public see Christian education as contributing to the general public good in British Columbia. (Check out our policy report on Educational Pluralism to see for yourself that government support for independent education does really improve education for all British Columbians.)

This system of education is why British Columbia can be cited as the best province in Canada for independent education, including Christian education.

Warning signs

So, we’ve started with a strong system, but there have been some worrying developments in the last five years.  Back in 2017, the government encouraged schools to use SOGI 123 resources, policies, and infrastructure to promote the acceptance of transgender and homosexual identities. (SOGI stands for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.) Although independent schools are allowed to opt out of most SOGI curricula, the province did require independent schools to incorporate gender identity and sexual orientation into their anti-bullying policies. This might lead to greater demands of SOGI inclusion down the road.

Back in the spring of 2020, the provincial government also reduced funding to independent distributed learning programs with very little warning or consultation. If the government is willing to reduce funding to some schools at the snap of a finger and sees how easily they could “get away with it,” will they soon be looking to eliminate funding for other independent schools?

Another growing concern is the increasing number of orders and regulations that independent schools are required to abide by. Now, this trend is nothing new – we see a growth in the bureaucracy in almost every sector in society – but this is a special concern when it impacts the ability of Christian parents and teachers to teach the truth to their children.

So, although British Columbia has an educational system that is very conducive to Christian education, the freedom for Christian education has been trending the wrong way in the past few years. We need to be proactive and take action.

The Back to Basics Campaign

With thankfulness for our current system, and with eyes open to the warning signs, we’ve put together a campaign to strengthen Christian education here in British Columbia: the Back to Basics campaign.

The goal of this campaign is to communicate the basics of how Christian education is good for society and why the provincial government should continue and even increase independence, accreditation, and funding for Christian education.

The action needed is simple!

First, thank your MLA, our education minister, and our education critic for the system of education that we have now! Thank our elected officials for the accreditation, the funding, and the independence we enjoy here.

Second, make the pragmatic case to your MLA why the government should continue to support independent schools. Here are some arguments that you can use:

  • Independent schools save public tax dollars. Christian parents pay the same taxes as everyone else to support public schools, yet their kids aren’t in those schools, saving the government money. Almost 69,000 students attended Group 1 independent schools. Remember that Group 1 independent students only receive half as much operational funding as their public school counterparts. If you do the math, Group 1 independent schools will save the government approximately $318 million dollars this year in just operational funding. (This is a low-ball figure that doesn’t take into account the savings from the requirement that independent schools cover their own capital expense or that other independent school groups cover the entire cost of education.)
  • Independent schools promote diversity. Public schools are largely a melting pot where diverse students are all taught using the same curriculum, the same teaching methods, and the same secular worldview. Independent schools, on the other hand, reflect and reinforce the enormous diversity in British Columbia. Independent schools teach based on a variety of religious perspectives (Christian, Sikh, Islamic, Jewish), serve a particular set of students (Indigenous students, international students), or use a special method of instruction (Montessori, Classical, or Waldorf schools).
  • Independent schools improve learning outcomes. Independent schools and homeschooling exist to provide an education that better fits the religion, culture, language, or learning method of their students, leading to increased participation by parents and better outcomes for students. Independent schools and homeschooling also increase the quality of all education through competition for students. Numerous studies show that the mere presence of independent schools in an area positively impacts test scores in neighbouring public schools. For a list of studies and more evidence on how independent schools help improve the overall education system, read the fourth section in our Educational Diversity policy report.

Conclusion

Here in British Columbia, we are blessed to raise and educate covenant children in a context where Christian parents and schools enjoy significant independence, accreditation, and funding. Let’s be active in promoting and defending that freedom, with thankfulness to God who grants it. Together, we can get Back to Basics in our conversations with our provincial representatives in the realm of education.


[1] David Hunt and Deani Van Pelt, “WHO CHOOSES INDEPENDENT SCHOOLS IN BRITISH COLUMBIA AND WHY?,” n.d., 10.

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