If the business across the street from yours, with fewer resources and higher prices, had increased its share of customers every year for 35 years, wouldn't you be curious why?
Wouldn't that interest intensify if your own customer base had shrunk in 24 of those 35 years? This is the situation B.C.'s schools find themselves in.
Enrolment at B.C. independent schools has increased every single year since 1977-78. Public schools have only recorded student increases in 11 of those 35 years -- all from 1987-88 through 1997-98.
Even during that boom decade for public schools, the public system's growth still badly trailed the independent system: private schools went up 71 per cent, while public school enrolment increased 27 per cent.
Market share for independent schools has nearly tripled from 4.3 per cent of all B.C. students in 1977-78 to 11.6 per cent last year. This share has increased every year for 35 years; there is no reason to believe it will stop any time soon.
These are families who pay twice for their children's education: once through the same school taxes we all pay, and then voluntarily with tuition fees. While some are wealthy, many are middle-class parents sacrificing and reprioritizing to put their children in these independent schools.
Independent schools receive 35 to 50 per cent of the per-student provincial funding a public school gets, and no tax money for capital projects, property purchases or equipment.
Independent schools are considered enemies by the British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCTF), and, according to union president Susan Lambert, unworthy of representation in Victoria. "[The new position of Parliamentary Secretary for Independent Schools] sends chills up and down my spine. The most significant concerns that we have had with the policy directions of this ministry and this government is the privatization of public education," she told The Tyee. "I am very concerned that the purpose of such a role would be to promote again the privatization of public education."
How typical. Rather than looking at how and why so many families are being drawn to independent schools (especially their distance learning programs), Lambert suggests they don't deserve political representation and trots out privatization like a boogeyman hiding under the bed.
Lambert is the same union leader who told a B.C. government budget committee last year that personal income taxes should be raised 25 per cent to give her members $2.2 billion in improved wages and benefits -- hardly money well spent for a system she claims is in crisis. And quite a raise: the total 2009-10 public school teacher payroll was $2.9 billion.
The BCTF complains that education funding has dropped as a percentage of the provincial budget but never mentions why: health care spending has exploded due mainly to an aging population. Makes sense, doesn't it? If we have fewer students, it's probably because we're all getting older. If we get older, it means we need more health care. This is a demographic, not philosophical, shift in government spending.
Lambert's bitter attacks on nearly 12 per cent of B.C. students do nothing to advance the cause of education in this province.
When Edmonton, led by former B.C. education deputy minister Emery Dosdall, embraced competition with independent schools and refocused the public system on student achievement by allowing parents to send their kids to any school they wanted, Time Magazine called the City of Champions, "the most imitated and admired public school system in North America."
It's time for B.C. education champions -- the minister, the parliamentary secretaries, trustees, administrators, principals, teachers and parents -- to step back and take a positive, hard look at what is attracting B.C. families to independent schools.
Education's "customers" are voting with their feet and their pocketbook, and we should learn why.