Why are B.C.’s religious schools receiving more money than ever before?

Despite being the least religious province in Canada, B.C. has seen its faith-based schools flourish

Ask someone what image pops into their head when they think “private school” and the picture will probably look something like this: kids in ties, crests sewn onto their sweaters, a castle-like campus with rolling green lawns and, of course, an elite education. Reality, however, presents a less Harry Potter-esque picture. The most common type of British Columbian private school is actually a religious one, and it’s receiving more provincial funding than you might think, with the government covering 50 percent of its operational costs each year. But how do taxpaying British Columbians—the least religiously affiliated people in Canada—feel about funding such schools?In a word, according to a June poll conducted by Insights West, displeased. The survey found that 70 percent of respondents opposed funding private religious schools with public money, while B.C.ers actually had less of a problem funding private secular schools (just 63 percent expressed opposition). Despite this, religious schools that follow the provincial curriculum not only receive more funding per student than elite private schools, they also greatly outnumber them. Religious schools make up 55 percent of all private schools in the province, according to a June report from the Fraser Institute. Put another way, at a time when public schools across the province are facing budget shortfalls, more government money than ever before is going to private, largely religious institutions.“I’m certainly hearing about it from parents as I go out to meetings,” says Vancouver School Board trustee Patti Bacchus. “Many only recently have come to realize that they’re also paying for private schools with their taxes.” Private schools received $341 million in public funding this year, up from $193 million only a decade earlier. And it’s no mystery why: private schools are growing in popularity. Between 1992 (when the data starts) and 2015, private school enrolment increased 68 percent in the province. Public schools, while still strongly the majority, saw enrolment decline three percent over that same period.

READ: Patti Bacchus on funding B.C.’s private schools with public money

As for why this is the case, critics often cite a lack of funding and a 2002 bill then-education minister Christy Clark introduced that led to larger class sizes. The ensuing tension between teachers and the province, which escalated to a strike in 2014, certainly hasn’t helped either. “My kids missed out on five weeks of school, five weeks of school in a rich country,” says Farah Shroff, vice-chair of Vancouver’s District Parent Advisory Council. “That’s why some of them leave .”But the data shows that private education’s rising popularity began long before the 2000s. It had its beginnings with former premier Bill Bennett, whose government began subsidizing private schools in 1977 at 35 percent of what public schools received. In 1989, under the government of Social Credit premier (and devout Catholic) Bill Vander Zalm, that maximum was increased to 50 percent for religious schools. Elite schools, which spend far more per student than public schools (and which, according to the June report, make up only five percent of private schools in Canada), still receive 35 percent. Fast-forward to 2016, and “what we do know is that about 65 percent of schools in B.C. are funded at 50 percent,” says Deani Van Pelt of the Fraser Institute. And while not all of those are religious, most are.Such schools are not necessarily overflowing with cash, however. The B.C. Muslim School in Richmond, for example, charges modest tuition with a goal of building community. “There was a sense of urgency that, in the public school system, were assimilating too quickly,” former principal Abdullahi Omar told the Toronto Star. The other argument for private education is that it can save taxpayers money as students in private schools receive less funding than those in the public system. “If you can leverage non-government dollars and bring that into the equation, we start getting into efficiencies,” Van Pelt says.Patti Bacchus, for one, is skeptical of that view. “Those schools existed for a long time prior to getting public funding,” she says, “and I expect they would continue to. Maybe not at the same rate, but if you want that private option, it should be privately funded.” As for religious schools? “When I go into Vancouver’s public schools, I see this incredible diversity of students,” Bacchus says. “They’re solving problems together, respecting each other and learning about each other’s cultures. We could lose that if we all hive off into our different cultural or religious groups.”Follow @trevormelanson