Why are so many parents opting out of B.C.’s renowned public schools?

B.C.’s private schools | BCBusiness
Though fond of the public system, Tracey Axelsson found private school was better at dealing with her daughter’s attention disorder.

And is a private school education really worth it?

The breaking point came on a June afternoon in 2014. Tracey Axelsson, a Vancouver mother of two, happened past her daughter’s bedroom where she was playing with a playmate. “Why is our teacher so mean to you?” she overheard the young friend ask. Axelsson’s ears perked up. “She’s always yelling at you.” Axelsson knew their Grade 3 teacher well, and she believed the woman was kind and a good teacher. “I’m sure it wasn’t yelling, but nagging,” she says. And yet, this young classmate was picking up on whatever was happening in the classroom.

Axelsson’s daughter has a mild attention disorder. “She is extra everything. Her mind is going a million miles a minute,” explains Axelsson. She believed that the girl was only learning half the content and was frequently bored. She worried that if her daughter didn’t get the support during elementary school to understand her learning style and develop strategies for focusing, she wouldn’t have a chance in high school.

The problem, as Axelsson saw it: the circumstances of the public system made it impossible for even a good teacher to provide the support her daughter needed. With 28 students and few resources, her teacher was preoccupied with behaviour management. “I don’t want my daughter to be oppressed in the classroom,” she says. “But I also don’t want her to be a distraction to others, and in a class that size I couldn’t guarantee those things weren’t going to happen.”

So Axelsson enrolled her daughter in Westside School, at an annual cost of $10,000, where she is in a class of eight kids. Five years ago, Axelsson would have never guessed she would have a child in private school; she describes herself as a staunch supporter of the public education system. And yet she is part of a growing group of parents who are opting out. In the past decade, private school enrollment has grown by 14.6 per cent while public schools have seen their numbers drop by 10 per cent. Private schools—which supporters prefer to call “independent schools”—now educate 12 per cent of students in B.C., up from 4.3 per cent in the late 1970s.

For many proactive parents, the decision to go private is about filling a need where the public system failed. Take, for example, Toran Savjord, a Squamish father of four children between the ages of eight and 14. His watershed was realizing school administrators were powerless to hold teachers accountable. “[Administrators] told me that I wasn’t the only parent complaining, as if that would make me feel better,” he recalls. “Unions have handicapped administrators. At the same time, great teachers don’t get rewarded.”

And so, Savjord—who had a central role in establishing private Quest University in Squamish and is now vice president of operations there—decided to start his own school along with two other enterprising parents. (Co-founder David Greenfield is an entrepreneur and developer instrumental in creating the Sea to Sky Gondola.) The new school is designed to engage students with hands-on learning and weekly full-day field trips to study geography at Elfin Lakes or Shakespeare at Bard on the Beach. Coast Mountain Academy opened last year with 15 students. This September the school attracted 70 students—who pay between $13,000 and $15,000, depending on their grade—filling its current space.

Like Axelsson, Savjord supports public education (he still coaches basketball at the local public high school). “I just got too frustrated with my inability to do anything,” he explains. “When you get a town with a lot of independents, you get better public schools. It nudges them out of complacency.”

Despite the experience of parents like Axelsson and Savjord, B.C.’s education system is, by most metrics, judged among the best in the world. According to the highly anticipated Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducted every three years by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, 15-year-old British Columbians rank above education heavyweights Finland and Germany and are on the heels of Singapore and Shanghai. Students here are better readers, scientists and problem solvers than their peers anywhere else in the country. (B.C. comes second only in math, to Quebec.)

There is also less disparity in B.C., with the gap in achievement between high- and low-performing students smaller than the PISA average—suggesting that, regardless of ability, most students do pretty well.

Still, our assumption that private school students perform better academically is so strongly held that it even has a name among educators: “the private school effect.” And, at first glance, B.C. students’ performance on standardized exams supports this belief. The largest gap is in Grade 7 numeracy: 81 per cent of private school students met or exceeded standards while only 60 per cent of public school students did in the 2010/11 academic year. That gap narrows in high school. Pass rates on most Grade 10 and 12 exams are similar, with the public system edging out the private system on Essentials of Math (the lowest-level math course).

But the story gets more convoluted when we begin to ask why private school students do better. Repeated research shows that socioeconomic factors and parent involvement have a major impact on learning outcomes, and the effects start early. A recent study by Stanford psychologist Anne Fernald found that by age two, children from affluent homes have 30 per cent more vocabulary than children from low-income families—simply because their parents have more time to speak and read to them. So is the difference between private and public students’ performance really about the quality of their schooling?

Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, professors of education at the University of Illinois, set out to answer that question in a 2013 book titled The Public School Advantage. Using sophisticated statistical analysis tools, they focused on math achievement, since the subject is primarily learned in school rather than at home; after controlling for demographics, they found that public school students did just as well as their private school peers. And while those who go to private school are more likely to enjoy better jobs and higher incomes down the road, the causation isn’t clear, according to economists Michael Owyang and Katarina Vermann. “The observed correlation between school type and economic outcomes may arise because students who attend private schools are inherently more likely to succeed regardless of where they are educated,” they wrote in a 2012 paper on school choice and economic outcomes.

So why aren’t B.C.’s top-rate public schools good enough for so many parents? Crawford Killian, a Capilano University professor who has written extensively about B.C. education for decades, theorizes that parents are flocking to private schools out of anxiety about their children’s future—in part because middle-class incomes and social mobility in Canada has stagnated. “We have this cutthroat star system; kids have to be the best. Many parents see education as a way their kids can get a leg up,” he explains. The Finnish school system, by contrast, strives to remove competition between students and foster collaboration. “The Finns decided 35 years ago that everyone would have an equal education, and that was that.” For years this strategy worked, with Finland ranking in the top three countries in international assessments. However, the Finns slipped in the most recent PISA results, albeit slightly. Educators there blame the decline, ironically, on competition: they say their previous PISA supremacy led Finnish policymakers to become complacent.

Junior school principal Ciara Corcoran of West Point Grey Academy says student-teacher bonding is crucial to the learning process.

Still, some parents—no matter what PISA and others say about the quality and equity of B.C.’s public system—believe that the only way to get a truly excellent education is to pay for it. One school attracting students from far and wide—even across borders—is Vancouver’s West Point Grey Academy (WPGA), where parents pay up to $19,300 annually. Filmmaker Richard Stevenson—who is creator of The School of Life project, which produces video time capsules of children’s lives as they grow up—was so inspired by the stories of two brothers who attended WPGA that he moved his family from Seattle to Vancouver so that his kids, now in Grades 5 and 6, could go to the school. “I’m in over 100 schools a year, so needless to say, I have been impressed by [WPGA’s] unique blend of high academic standards and social and emotional learning,” he says.

WPGA is recognized for its excellence annually by the Fraser Institute’s controversial school rankings. (Only one public school cracked the list’s top 20.) The core of what makes WPGA such a great school is personalization. Its junior-school teachers are trained in attachment theory—a school of thought based on the idea that close, trusting relationships between teacher and student are an essential foundation of learning.

“When a student has the security of an attachment, the mind is open to absorb new information,” explains junior school principal Ciara Corcoran. “It also encourages students to look to their teachers for direction with regard to values, identity and positive choices rather than looking to peer attachments for all decision-making.” Repeated research has shown that one of the strongest indicators of later life success (on outcomes from income to divorce rates) in both the K-12 and in higher education is whether a student reports they had a teacher who cared about them.

At WPGA’s senior school, personalization applies to everything from tailoring timetables to suit students’ needs to employing innovative assessment tools to help students progress at their own pace rather than at the pace of their cohort. If a student falls behind, teachers know them well enough to identify the problem early.

Much of what distinguishes WPGA boils down to resources. Conversations among enlightened educators in the public system, both at the school and ministry level, revolve around issues like personalization. Figuring out how to teach not only basic literacy and numeracy but also the so-called 21st-century skills (things like character, collaboration and communication, which WPGA delivers so well) is at the heart of current curriculum reforms.

But this is a heck of a lot easier to achieve with the advantage of specialist teachers, ubiquitous technology and teacher training. Public school districts receive about $7,800 per student for operations (not including capital expenditures) from government. Private schools receive up to half of that amount in government subsidies—in addition to the $10,000 to $20,000 parents pay annually. In short, policymakers will need to invest more in specialist teachers and teacher training if they hope to make personalization a reality in public classrooms.

In the meantime, the lack of personalization in the public system is in part what causes parents to turn to private schools. Questions about an education system’s overall quality can be partly answered by comparing averages across jurisdictions. But education “equity” can also be understood as “mediocrity” and averages don’t speak to experiences of individual children who fall outside the norm.

Consider, for example, Rick Moore’s story. He and his wife remortgaged their home and forwent vacations in order to put their severely dyslexic son Jeffery in private school after the North Vancouver School District closed a specialized program for children with special needs. They sued, arguing that the province failed to fulfill its legal obligation to provide free, public education to all children.

Finally, in 2012, they won in the Supreme Court of Canada and the North Vancouver School District was ordered to reimburse private school tuition and tutoring fees (which came to over $100,000 with interest); Jeffery was awarded $10,000 in damages. The program was eventually reopened in North Vancouver, although the provincial system itself was not held liable. Jeffery, now 27, is a successful plumber.

Moore believes his legal battle reveals a lot about why private schools are flourishing. “When people hear ‘private school’, they think of Crofton House or St. George’s, but there is a whole category of schools that exist because the public system can’t or won’t teach children like my son,” he says. “The public system is really good at teaching the kind of kids who are round pegs in round holes, but they have a difficult time helping the square pegs.”

While the disability movement helped establish the independent school sector in the 1950s (see “Children With Disabilities in B.C. Schools,” opposite), a child doesn’t need to be severely dyslexic to be a “square peg,” as Moore puts it. Lisa Pozin’s son Rylan was held back a year for being disruptive. Teachers warned her that he wasn’t developing emotionally at the pace of other children his age, but Pozin suspected that the problem wasn’t her son’s development but that the traditional school, which requires students to be quiet and compliant, wasn’t a good fit for the overactive boy. She placed him in Madrona School, a one-room school where children learn at their own pace in an environment with children of multiple ages. Rylan, now seven, is studying math at a level beyond what children his age study in public school.

Eric O’Donnell, a long-time teacher who took over Madrona School with his wife Judy in 2010, believes the public system “hopelessly mishandles” children like Rylan. Madrona specializes in educating “gifted” children, a term used by educators to describe children in the 97th percentile intellectually. Despite (or perhaps because of) their brainiac status, gifted children sometimes struggle with their behaviour. “We get a lot of kids who have been absolutely crushed by the public system and are in effect de-schooled,” says O’Donnell, whose grown son is gifted. “They have had such profoundly bad experiences that they are expecting a bad experience.”

B.C. is very good at educating a particular sort of student: those who can sit still and focus in a class of 25. But for children like Rylan Pozin and Jeffery Moore, who don’t fit into the average, school can have disastrous effects on their self-esteem. Our schools may be beautiful cashmere sweaters, but they’re one-size-fits-all.

So is a private school education worth it? If your child is a round peg, she’ll probably do just fine no matter which of B.C.’s generally excellent schools she attends. Parents of square pegs, on the other hand, will have to wait and see whether a new six-year contract negotiated between the government and the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, with its promised $400-million fund to address class size and composition, will have any effect.

In the meantime, kids—typically quick to pick up on conflict among adults—sense what’s going on. As Tracey Axelsson’s daughter, decidedly a square peg, proclaimed just weeks after starting at Westside School: “Hey, Mom, I’m not the weirdest kid in class anymore!”


Children With Disabilities in B.C. Schools 

Rick Moore, parent of a severely dyslexic son, compares the history of disabled children in B.C. schools to the closing of mental health institution Riverview Hospital. “Inclusion, even though it was the right thing to do, was never sufficiently funded,” he says. “I’m still cynical about whether the government is sincere about making inclusion of disabled children work.”

1950s: Public schools don’t educate children with developmental abilities because it is widely believed that they cannot learn. So parents of disabled children start to set up their own independent schools.

1977: Premier Bill Bennett begins subsidizing independent schools—giving schools up to 35 per cent of public school funding per student—and enrollment grows consistently over the next decade.

1980s: Disability activists, going against the thinking of the 1950s, now push for disabled students to be educated in regular classrooms instead of at isolated specialized schools. Private school growth slows over the next decade as disabled students are integrated into the public system.

2002: Then-Education Minister Christy Clark removes the B.C. Teachers’ Federation’s right to negotiate class size and composition, which teachers argue hurts students with special needs. Growth in private school enrollment speeds up again, with the portion of B.C. students in private schools increasing from nine to 12 per cent over the next decade.

2014: The decade-long legal battle over class size and composition comes to a head during the teachers’ strike. The deal that ends the strike includes $400 million to hire specialized teaching aides and limit the number of special needs children assigned to each teacher.

2015: The Supreme Court of Canada will consider whether the B.C. government illegally removed the BCTF’s right to bargain class size and composition back in 2002.