Commissioner Barry M. Sullivan, Q.C. was appointed Commissioner of the Royal Commission on Education March 14, 1987.  He submitted his report on July 15, 1988. The report was entitled A Legacy for Learners: Report of the Royal Commission on Education. The following extract from the report, pages 198-203, deals with independent schools.


Few issues examined by the Commission this past year have generated as much passion as the issue for public support for non-public schools. For much of the past decade, in fact, the use of public funds to provide operating grants to qualifying non-public institutions has remained a controversial topic inside and outside educational circles and for this reason will be treated in a fairly comprehensive manner in the following pages.

Although the question of public assistance to the non-public educational sector has been frequently debated since the passage of the Independent Schools Support Act in 1977, the roots of this question and, indeed, the nature of the relationship between public and non-public schools may be traced as far back as the colonial era of British Columbia history.

The first schools in the Crown Colony of Vancouver Island did not distinguish with any great precision their status as public or private institutions. By 1849, for example, an Anglican and a Roman Catholic clergyman had each established schools at Fort Victoria and, in line with the dictates of colonial government, were each responsible to the post’s Chief Factor, James Douglas, as well as to their respective bishops. Support for these schools came from several sources – the Hudson’s Bay Company, church authorities, and fee-paying parents. By the 1860s, private-venture as well as religious schools were operating on both Vancouver Island and the mainland, characterized in large part both by their pedagogical and operational diversity.

The old Sapperton School exemplifies the variation that marked schools of this time. Administered by an Anglican clergyman for children of the Royal Engineers, it received funds from the Crown Colony of British Columbia, the British War Office, and parents; its teacher, the Reverend John Sheepshanks, answered to these three constituencies as well as to his Church of England superiors. In short, the historical record illustrates that the sharp distinction over sources of support that later came to divide public and non-public sectors was not present in the first days of British Columbia schooling.

However, the emergence of several broad social and educational forces, including Confederation, fear of American influence – if not domination – and the general popularity of the common school movement across the continent led to the creation of the public school system in 1872. Legislation held that public schools ought to enjoy government funding and that private, especially denominational schools, ought not to be supported by the public purse. The School Act of 1872 did not, however, question the legitimacy or, for that matter, the desirability of non-public schools. Viewed within its social context, it simply acknowledged the press of political events at the time, as well as the need to extend the educational franchise and the rule of government across a vast, thinly populated territory. And so, as one scholar points out, “the public system grew and developed, largely unchallenged by supporters of other forms of education.”

This is not to say, however, that the non-public sector remained dormant until recent decades. Quite the contrary; over the last century an assortment of sectarian and private enterprise schools has emerged. Of these, a small number have remained in continuous operation; many more have vanished but have been replaced, in time, by new schools of similar or different stripe. Such developments testify in a real way to both the durability of demand for choice in schooling and to the fact that certain segments of the British Columbia public continue to seek alternatives to the dominant public system.

The policy of denying provincial support to non-public schools, which had stood since the early 1870s, was seriously challenged in the post-1945 years as denominational schools, in particular, found themselves unable to afford certain services, facilities, and curricular materials deemed to be essential to mid-twentieth-century education. Three decades of petitioning by proponents of independent education eventually led to the provincial government’s 1977 decision to provide partial levels of financial support to non-public schools.

The enactment of what has come to be called the School Support (Independent) Act has provoked considerable controversy since its passage in 1977 and has prompted much public debate over the propriety of using provincial resources to support non-public schools. Views reflecting both sides of this important issue were expressed with equal conviction to the Commission at various times in public hearings over the past year as well as in a number of written submissions.

Like other educational issues brought to the Commission’s attention, the question of support for independent schools contains within it even more fundamental issues pertaining to the meaning and practice of democracy and to the view we have of ourselves as an open, pluralistic society. This question brings deeper debates to the fore: debates about individual rights, the role of government in our lives, the extent to which choice should be permitted, the nature of the public good, and the degrees to which equality of opportunity and treatment can be assured in public policy.

For that reason, and because such strong and heartfelt sentiment surrounded the issue, the Commission paid particular attention to the nature of this debate as it was outlined from various perspectives in public, professional, and various group submissions. It did so anticipating that resolution to this question might not be found in the quantitative world of ‘hard data,’ but in qualitative judgements about social priorities and the relative ranking of values.

We can begin this discussion of the public versus non-public debate by reviewing the position taken by those who oppose the provincial government’s policy to use public funds in support of independent schools. Essentially, the weight of such argument rests on two grounds – the dangers to civic well-being presented by funding of non-public schools and fears about resource depletion that has occurred, or may occur if government continues to support non-public schools.

In the broadest sense, opponents of provincial support for independent schools claim that a provincial consensus in support of free, non-denominational schooling had emerged over the course of the last century and should therefore not be disturbed. Education, this line of argument continues, is a public good that must be preserved; the best way to ensure this public good for posterity, several parents said, was through a collective public enterprise. Others noted that the practice of funding independent schools at public expense is socially divisive and that taxes would be better spent educating for the common good rather than for promoting particular, especially religious, beliefs. One submission put this case rather bluntly: “Those who, under the guise of freedom of choice, argue for an education system consisting of separate schools for Anglicans, Orangemen, Marxists, Neo-Nazis, fundamentalists and rural romantics are only fostering sectarianism. Public education should be secular.”

Similarly, the point was made that children’s social attitudes toward others and toward province and country are formed in early years of schooling and that non-public schooling, especially at primary levels, may inculcate in children a sense of separateness, elitism, or intolerance not beneficial to individuals or to society as a whole. Some further argued that public support of non-public schools may undermine equality of educational opportunity in that admission and selection procedures found in some non-public schools are discriminatory in nature, taking into account, as they do, such factors as income, language preference or ability, gender, religion, or pupils’ physical and mental abilities.

Turning to the resource depletion side of the argument, some members of the public and parents contended that using public resources for non-public schools reduced overall levels of support for public education. Others suggested that continued public support for the non-public sector could trigger a downward spiral in enrolment and status for the public schools – losses that would eventually have severe financial implications for the condition of public education. Still others expressed the view that parents of children who leave public schools for the independent sector lose interest in public education and that this exodus of support, in itself, imperils general confidence in public schools.

Such views were supported also in submissions made by professional and other organizations closely associated with public schooling. The British Columbia Teachers’ Federation recommended that public funds be used expressly for public schools; the British Columbia School Trustees Association argued that government should phase out independent school funding. The Association of British Columbia School Superintendents emphasized that the trend toward alternative schooling was potentially divisive and therefore urged the provincial government to ensure adequate support for public schools. Other concerned groups adopted similar positions. The Canadian Union of Public Employees, for instance, declared that private schools for the “wealthy and privileged” should not be subsidized with public funds. And, to cite one final example, the Vancouver Secondary Teachers Association recommended that no educational services in British Columbia be privatized.

In sharp contrast to these views, proponents of independent schooling spoke to what they saw as the great social value and utility of non-public sector schools and the reasons they deserved funding. One line of this argument was based on the democratic right of choice. Some parents argued that a state monopoly of educational resources limits free choice and competition, inhibits efficient delivery of services, and brings about a qualitative decline in schooling. At hearings it was claimed that the independent school’s challenge to the public school monopoly provides the most compelling economic rationale for public support of independent schools; the resulting competition forces the public system to be more responsive to parental concern and provides enhanced educational choice for those dissatisfied with certain facets of the public system. Ideologically, parents with this view felt they have an a priori right to educate children as they see fit and applauded the use of public funds in aid of non-public schooling as a way of recognizing this important right and the responsibilities it entails. Some parents pointed out that the principles of parental choice and of state support for such choice are already enshrined in the School Support (Independent) Act and should be left intact so that parents may select the form of education they feel to be appropriate for their children.

A second line of argument in favour of provincial support for independent schools calls for recognizing, through alternative systems of schooling, the social character of the province and the diversity that marks it. A submission at a public hearing expressed this view in the following terms: “Can we continue to support the notion of ‘public education’ as a single over-arching structure which seeks to educate our children in some (it is fondly imagined) universally agreed way? I don’t believe we can. I believe we must recognize the reality that our education system inevitably reflects our pluralistic, multicultural society whether we like it or not. Our elected representatives must seek to encourage the development of several distinct educational systems to meet the needs of our social mosaic” In short, the advocates of non-public schooling hold that it reflects the diversity and the need for choice within provincial society.

Another view justifies the support side of the issue on the basis of precedent. This line of argument notes, for example, that the principle of provincial funding for independent schools is not new or unique to British Columbia and that four other Canadian provinces – Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Quebec – provide aid to non-public schools. Quebec and Alberta, in fact, provide 80% and 75% respectively, of the levels of funding that corresponding public schools receive; in addition to this funding, several provinces, including Ontario, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, make formal provision in law for public funding of Roman Catholic schools. All of Newfoundland’s public schools are affiliated with one or more religious denominations. Proponents of provincial support for non-public schools point out that private education is supported to varying degrees with public funds in the Western world, notably in Australia and in all countries within the European Community other than Italy and Greece. Altogether, this line of reasoning locates the public support issue outside the provincial arena and within the broader context of Western educational practice and culture.

Finally, supporters of independent schools claim that they bear the financial burden of property taxes for schools in addition to the educational fees charged by the institutions their children attend. Such parents argue, in effect, they are ‘double taxed’ in exercising their right to preferred forms of schooling that contribute no less to the general social good than public schools. They contend that non-public schools are responsive not only to parents’ academic, vocational, behavioural, cultural, and religious concerns, but that they play important roles in meeting the educational and social needs of the community at large.

When examining the often volatile issue of public support for independent schools and developing the Commission’s perspective, we found ourselves confronted with essentially two points of view, one arguing for and one against support, each claiming ownership of the civic and moral high ground, each defining the public good in its own ideological terms, each making basic assumptions about the educational and financial role of the state, and each offering its own interpretation of what school policies and practices best serve children, their parents, and the community in general. In attempting to find a sensible path through this formidable issue, the Commission sought first to analyze and test out, as carefully as it could, the conflicting and frequently contradictory claims presented. It did so to dispel whatever possible misunderstandings may exist and to develop a perspective which would guide the Commission’s own treatment of the question and any subsequent examination by educational policy-makers at the provincial level.

For the sake of clarity, then, the Commission wishes first to note that the question discussed here has been generally defined as whether the province has any fiscal obligation to independent schools in a fashion parallel to its treatment of the public system, not whether non-public schools should exist. That question has not been under serious debate. It is similarly important to note that, generally, opponents and advocates of such provincial support tended to state their cases in the extreme. For example, the Commission found that parental dissatisfaction with public schooling as broad justification for subscription to the non-public sector was largely a personal matter and one, at times, somewhat overstated. Over the past year, we have listened to parents express with singular emphasis their dissatisfaction with the public system. But, conversely, the responses of other parents and our own access to scores of schools, hundreds of teachers, and thousands of youngsters in public schools convince us that the public system in general is responding well and with professional commitment to its important and often difficult tasks. Indeed, to imply that public schooling today is in a chaotic state is to do it a monumental disservice.

Likewise, we listened to staunch advocates of public schooling suggest that independent schools are synonymous with elitist education, that they do not serve well the diversity of provincial learners, and that they are essentially exclusionary in character. We find these assumptions to be just as inaccurate and overstated. Granted, ten or so of the more than 300 British Columbia independent schools emulate the curricular interests, character, and style of old world institutions. However, by far the greater number of the funded non-public schools – Roman Catholic, Evangelical, Protestant, Seventh Day Adventist, Jewish, Mennonite, Sikh, Lutheran, and Fundamentalist Christian Schools, as well as the secular Waldorf and Montessori schools – exercise considerable social reach and include in their enrolments youngsters with diverse interests and needs from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and from various parts of the social and economic spectrum. The focus on the small number of ‘elitist’ or ‘wealthier’ schools which implicitly cater to a clientele desiring university entrance, the Commission feels, has diverted attention from the larger denominational and special needs independent school sector and the importance of fiscal support to the educational programs of such institutions.

Proper perspective, too, is required to understand the argument that funding provided to independent schools reduces levels of support, as some have charged, from the public system. In terms of the current level of public support provided to independent schools, the issue is relatively unimportant. Only $31 million was allocated to independent schools in 1986-87. This represents 1.8% of the total revenue available for public school purposes from general provincial revenue, residential and non-residential taxation, and Homeowner Grants. It is approximately equal to the portion of individual Homeowner Grants not used for educational purposes, but which instead spills over to help offset municipal tax liabilities. Economic analysis provides no evidence to support the hypothesis that provincial support for independent schools has, to date, reduced the level of funding for public schools. Viewed in terms of the recent historical context in British Columbia and of the battles that have raged through the canyons of school finance, it is understandable that some members of the public and the education profession may feel that financial support for independent schooling threatens support for the public system. The evidence, however, does not bear this out.

`With the foregoing clarifications in mind, what then can the Commission say about the characteristics of British Columbia society, its schools, and its learners to point the way toward developing a more appropriate and useful perspective concerning provincial support for independent schools? Responding to this question, we must return first to where this report began: with the subject of diversity, perhaps the most inescapable and salient fact of British Columbia life in the late 1980s. As this report has detailed throughout its pages, the accommodation of diversity – whether defined by individual or group differences at regional, local or neighbourhood levels, or in terms of varying parental and pupil appetites for school services – is a factor of primary importance. We believe it must be satisfied.

With this recognition of diversity comes the need for choice – choice that centres on learners and parents, choice that is located at the level of the individual school district, the individual school, and where possible, the individual classroom. In a society that seeks greater measures of differentiation and greater acknowledgement of diversity, choice is of paramount consideration, the Commission believes. It speaks in a direct way to individuals participating in the educational decisions that affect their lives and to the empowerment of youngsters, their parents, and the school professionals who serve them. Choice, the Commission maintains, invigorates the responsibility that must pertain at every level of schooling, from the parents at home, to the child at school, through the teachers, administrators, and governance officials, and, finally, to the senior officials in the Ministry of Education and to the Minister of Education as the highest educational official in the provincial system. Choice likewise presumes a faith in people’s abilities to decide wisely and a capacity to trust that they will do so. It presumes freedom of opportunity to decide; it entails responsibility for the consequences of such action.

In framing a perspective on the issue of support for independent schools, the Commission recognizes the importance of diversity and choice and their value as sound educational principles. At the same time, the Commission recognizes that other principles equally basic to the system should serve to balance diversity and choice – notably principles of access, equality, and accountability. Simply put, the provincial system envisioned by the Commission should be marked by both ‘loose’ and ‘tight’ properties. It should accommodate the demand for diversity that exists in both public and non-public sectors; it should allow pupils, parents, and other participants in schooling the right to make educational choices and to provide reasonable levels of resources for them to do so; it should, at the same time, seek to promote equality of opportunity and equality of educational access for all children to the extent that it is feasible; and, it should, in the interests of children’s welfare and the common good, monitor the levels of service delivered in efficient and effective ways.

The Commission recommends:

14. That provisions and regulations for the establishment, registration, and operation of all non-public schools be specified in relevant sections of the School Act.

15. That the Ministry of Education obtain from all non-public schools the statistical and other data pertaining to their operation in order to provide a full annual picture of schooling in British Columbia from Kindergarten to Grade 12.

16. That, in the interests of ensuring equality of educational opportunity for all youngsters throughout the province, all non-public schools in British Columbia be required to meet certain basic curricular, assessment, and inspection requirements established by the Ministry of Education and defined in the School Act.

17. That four categories of non-public schools be established for funding consideration under the School Support (Independent) Act, as follows:

  • Category 1 – those schools which fully meet all curricular and teacher certification requirements as set out in the School Act;
  • Category 2 – those schools which currently satisfy criteria established for ‘Group 2’ classification and support;
  • Category 3 – those schools which currently satisfy criteria established for ‘Group 1’ classification and support; and
  • Category 4 – those schools who neither meet criteria for Categories 1, 2, or 3 nor wish to avail themselves of financial support.

The categorical funding levels for Category 1, Category 2, Category 3, and Category 4 schools shall be 50%, 35%, 10%, and 0% respectively, of the public per-pupil allocations to the school districts in which they are located.