British Columbia·Q&A

Education Minister on VSB school closures and funding private schools

Mike Bernier takes questions on the requirement for the VSB to meet a district-wide capacity of 95 per cent enrolment.

'We don't fund private schools. We fund students,' says B.C.'s education minister

The day after the list of 12 schools were announced, students, parents and teachers rallied in front of the Vancouver School Board's office. (CBC)

After the Vancouver School Board released its preliminary list of 12 schools set to close by next year, parents and teachers have questioned the provincial policies that have led to this point.

Board chair Mike Lombardi said the VSB's long-term facilities plan is driven and based on the Ministry of Education's requirement for 95 per cent enrolment across the district.

CBC Radio One's The Early Edition invited B.C.'s Education Minister Mike Bernier to respond to questions about this requirement and other issues.

The minister was interviewed by host Stephen Quinn.

We keep hearing about a 95 per cent capacity requirement that the VSB must meet in order to qualify for seismic upgrades and new funding for schools. Why is there is a 95 per cent capacity rule in order to qualify for seismic mitigation? 

There is a [memorandum of understanding] signed between the province and the VSB that they wanted to start working towards a the target of 95 per cent capacity within the district.

I've sat down personally with the current chair of the Vancouver School Board and was very up front about the fact that it's a flexible target. It is something we're working towards. It has not stopped seismic upgrades and in fact, we've continued to make improvements since that MOU was signed.

Yes, but where does the 95 per cent come from? When it comes to educational outcomes, why is the target 95 per cent?

B.C.'s Education Minister Mike Bernier says the 95 per cent capacity threshold for Vancouver schools is a 'flexible target.' (Mike Bernier MLA website)

When you look at Vancouver specifically, what we've talked about is the fact that we want [the school board] to be using tax payers dollars wisely.

There's $37M a year right now that's being spent on empty classrooms. A big part of this MOU was to start looking at a long range facilities plan. How do we have a target of utilizing space appropriately? And how do we look at making sure programs are enhanced and that money is being spent for students.

Filling schools to 95 per cent is a policy decision, but what is it based it on? 

What's best for students is making sure that we have great programming. We worked on negotiations with the school district at the time, with the school board, looking at opportunities to make sure that we have the best programs possible. Ninety-five per cent is a target, it's something we've said is to work towards.

This year the provincial government is providing $358 million in funding to private schools. In a recent CUPE poll, 77 per cent of British Columbians say they oppose the government subsidy to private schools. Should taxpayer dollars be subsidizing families who send their kids to elite private schools?

When we look at education in British Columbia, I would say we don't fund private schools. We fund students. We fund opportunities for students and those opportunities are chosen by parents.

But you fund students whose parents who can afford tens of thousands of dollars in tuition to send their children to private schools. Why is public money being put towards that?

We have legislative formula that has been put in place for several decades. We have to remember that families have a choice.

We want to ensure that every child has the best education possible, which is why the majority of the funding goes to public education.

If people choose to send their child to an independent school, they have already paid taxes towards public school even though their child has not gone there. That's a choice parents make.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

To hear the full interview, click the audio labelled:  Mike Bernier on VSB announcement of 12 school closures