Updated July 14, 2020
by Levi Minderhoud
The year 2020 seems to be a year of almost unlimited government spending. The federal government (as of July 8) announced that its deficit would be $343 billion this year. The government of British Columbia is also spending $5 billion on a variety of COVID-related measures. The dominant view among policymakers and economists is that government should spend, spend, spend to avoid an even deeper recession.
But, apparently that fund-everything-in-sight logic doesn’t apply to independent distributed learning (IDL) schools in British Columbia. On May 4th, the British Columbia Minister of Education decided to cut funding to these schools.
What are Independent Distributed Learning (IDL) schools?
IDL schools employ British Columbia-certified teachers and follow the British Columbia curriculum, just like brick-and-mortar public schools or other independent schools. What makes these schools distinct from other independent schools is that much of the students’ learning takes place at home, online, or in weekly community programs.
There are 16 independent distributed learning schools recognized by the British Columbia Ministry of Education, educating between 12,000-15,000 students. Several schools are distinctly Christian IDL schools. Other IDL schools serve students with special needs or students in remote communities, student bodies that traditional public schools or independent schools cannot adequately serve. Other parents use these IDL programs so that their children have greater flexibility in their studies, because they believe that this method of self-paced learning is better for their children, or because of concerns about other local schools.
One distinctive feature of IDL schools is that parents do not pay tuition for their enrolled children. In fact, money flows the other way. Independent distributed learning schools give money to the parents of enrolled children to help offset the cost of things that distributed learning cannot provide, like school supplies, music lessons, or athletic programs.
Why did the government cut funding?
The Ministry of Education justified this funding cut with claims that they were equalizing the level of funding received by independent distributed learning schools and brick-and-mortar independent schools. For the last eight years, IDL schools have received 63% of the funding ($3843 per student) allocated to their public distributed learning counterparts ($6100 per student). Most brick-and-mortar independent schools receive 50% of the funding ($4777 per student) allocated to their public brick-and-mortar counterparts ($9554 per student). This cut reduces funding for IDL schools down to 50% of the public distributed learning rate ($3050 per student), down by about $800 per student, and down by a cumulative $12 million next year.
Equalization is a poor excuse to cut funding to IDL schools. If funding equality is the goal of the Ministry of Education, why not raise the funding percentage for brick-and-mortar independent schools to 63%? Or give the same amount of money to IDL students as to brick-and-mortar independent schools? Perhaps reduce funding to public distributed learning schools? Or fund all independent schools the same as public schools? The government’s current funding cut arbitrarily picks which learning programs should be equally funded and is somewhat arbitrary in deciding what “equal” even means.
Why is this troubling?
Independent distributed learning schools – and independent schools in general – are an integral part of British Columbia’s education system. They contribute to a diversity of learning options that respect family and parental rights in educating their children, save general taxpayers money, and improve student outcomes. There are three main reasons why these funding cuts to specifically IDL schools should be troubling to Christians.
First, this funding cut comes despite the fact that John Horgan and the New Democratic Party committed to maintaining funding for all independent schools before the last election. Responding to an inquiry by the Federation of Independent Schools (FISA) in the spring of 2017, John Horgan promised that the NDP had no plans to reduce funding for independent schools. One source that I talked to revealed that these funding cuts were initiated by the previous government under the British Columbia Liberal Party. Regardless of who initiated the funding cut, however, the current administration is responsible for implementing it. If the government is willing to break this promise to independent distributed learning schools, some asked whether the Ministry would also remove funding for other independent schools. A non-partisan representative within the Ministry of Education responded that it has no intention of cutting any other independent school funding at this time. That is hardly a confidence-inspiring answer.
Second, the announcement was extraordinarily ill-timed. IDL schools began enrolment for the next school year on March 1st. The funding cut announcement was made on May 4th and was to be put in force on July 1st. Thus, parents had already committed to programs and expenses based on existing funding arrangements. If parents had been advised about the funding cuts well in advance of March 1st, they could have planned accordingly. Current financial hardship due to COVID exacerbates the challenge these parents face.
Third, these funding cuts affect some of the most vulnerable students in British Columbia’s education system. A disproportionate number of students with mental, physical, or emotional challenges use the IDL school system to ensure that they get the individualized attention they need to learn and thrive. This individualized learning is simply not available or sufficient at brick-and-mortar public or independent schools. Although the top-up for special needs students that all schools (including IDL schools) was left untouched, this funding cut still undermines the attractiveness of IDL schools in general. The IDL schools also serve children in remote areas or in families that have to move often, cutting off long commute times or providing continuity in schooling. Other forms of schooling are not feasible for these students.
Victoria Cunningham, in her book Justice Achieved: The Political Struggle of Independent Schools in British Columbia, charts the history of independent schools in British Columbia until 2001. The book recounts how the battle for independent school recognition and funding was a long battle, but that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Back in the early 1990s, the government campaigned on the promise that it would not cut funding to independent schools, but reneged on this promise by reducing special education grants, then eliminating the Group 3 funding for independent schools, and finally by stealthily trying to change the funding formula for independent schools. Two of these three policies were rolled back because of the public outcry against these attacks on independent schools.
A similar situation faces supporters of independent schools today. A government promised to maintain funding for independent schools, yet it is breaking their promise, this time in the guise of reducing funding for independent distributed learning programs. Supporters of independent education should respond the same way as they did back in the early 1990s: write your MLA (especially if you have an NDP MLA) and the Minister of Education, Rob Fleming, and voice your concern with this policy.
Independent schools in British Columbia can continue to enjoy one of the best educational arrangements in Canada only if they stand united and continue to defend the value of a diversity of independent educational choices in the province.
Levi Minderhoud is the British Columbia Manager for ARPA Canada