British Columbia·CBC Explains

What you need to know about private schools getting taxpayer cash

The question of why the B.C. government funds schools outside the public school system arose after CBC's Go Public told the story of a woman let go from Surrey Christian School after administrators learned she was living with her common-law partner in violation of her employment contract.

Hundreds of independent schools in B.C. — many faith-based — receive funding from the government

The back of students' heads can be seen as they listen to a teacher at the front of a classroom.
Private schools in B.C. get hundreds of millions of dollars from taxpayers each year. (Shutterstock/Syda Productions)

CBC Go Public story about a teacher let go from Surrey Christian School after administrators learned she was living common law with a man raises the question: why are private schools with strict, faith-based employment contracts getting funding from the public purse?

In the case of Surrey Christian School, the teacher's living situation violated a clause in her employment contract that forbids "any sexual activity outside of a heterosexual marriage."

Some consider the contract discriminatory, and public education advocate Patti Bacchus, who chaired the Vancouver School Board from 2008-2014, suggested the government should not provide funding for schools with similar contracts.

The teacher who went public with her story, Stephanie Vande Kraats, also wants the government to cut funding or insist the schools change their employment policies.

Stephanie Vande Kraats was told she couldn’t continue to teach at Surrey Christian School. (Erica Johnson/CBC)

B.C.'s Ministry of Education refers to the entire category of schools as 'independent schools,' but popularly, the term 'private schools' is commonly used when discussing schools outside the public school system.

But it's not so simple

The office of B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming initially declined an interview request for Go Public's story, but Fleming later pointed to legal protections based on the right to religious freedom.

"I think we're still stuck with the courts having ruled that certain human rights exemptions allow contracts to be structured in this way and two parties sign them," said Fleming.

How did these legal protections come to pass?

The legal case for schools meddling in staff members' personal lives goes back to a 1984 Supreme Court of Canada decision. That's when the court ruled in favour of a Catholic school that fired a teacher after she married a divorced man.

Court challenges since then haven't managed to change much for employees of private schools, but last summer, in a case that touches on some of the same issues, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of the law societies in B.C. and Ontario.

The law societies had refused to accredit Trinity Western University's new law school because TWU's "community covenant" requires students to abstain from sex outside heterosexual marriage.

What's in the employment contracts?

The employment contracts are relatively common among Christian schools. Dozens have community standards policies in place. They vary, but can include forbidding sex outside a heterosexual marriage — like Surrey Christian School's does — or behaviours watching pornography, using coarse language or drinking excessively in public.

Human rights codes in provinces across Canada have exemptions that allow religious schools to set their own policies.

According to Fleming, fewer than 10 of the province's roughly 368 independent schools have employment contract stipulations like the one at Surrey Christian School.

So, how much are these schools funded?

Jason Ellis, assistant professor of education at the University of British Columbia, says the push for public money to be given to private schools in B.C. started in the 1950s and '60s, with a focus on Catholic schools. It became law just over 40 years ago.

"In 1977, the Social Credit government brought in a new law that would enable the government to fund not just Catholic schools, but other religious schools and independent schools as well," said Ellis.

"The amount of funding that we now give has grown pretty considerably — it's almost half a billion dollars a year at this point."

Private schools can get anywhere from 35 to 50 per cent of the amount that goes into a public school, per student. For the 186 schools that are considered faith-based, including Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh schools, the total funding for 2017-2018 was almost $300 million.

What's the case for independent schools?

The Federation of Independent School Associations (of which Surrey Christian School is a member) claims independent schools save taxpayers nearly $430 million per year in operating costs, and more in capital costs, arguing that parents are footing a significant portion of the bills.

B.C. Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver called on the courts to re-examine what independent schools are allowed to include in employment contracts, but he rebuffed the suggestion government funding should be tied to specific belief systems.

"[It] is a little dangerous, because then you have governments picking winning and losing religions — then you might have governments picking winning and losing ethnic groups, and that is not what the government is for," said Weaver.

With files from CBC's Tanya Fletcher, Lien Yeung, Enza Uda and Erica Johnson.

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Rafferty Baker

Video journalist

Rafferty Baker is a Video journalist with CBC News, based in Vancouver, as well as a writer and producer of the CBC podcast series, Pressure Cooker. You can find his stories on CBC Radio, television, and online at