Patti Bacchus: Study shows private schools may be a waste of money

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      Parents who think they’re giving their kids an edge for university by paying thousands of dollars per year to send them to private K-12 schools may be wasting their money, according to a study released earlier this month by the B.C. Humanist Association (BCHA).

      The study shows kids who graduate from private schools don’t do any better than public-school kids do in their fourth year at the University of British Columbia (UBC). That may mean that forking out thousands of dollars for tuition, year after year, may be a colossal waste of money.

      Parents pay for private schools for all kinds of reasons, of course, but if it’s an academic advantage they’re looking for, they’d be wise to send their kids to their local public school and save their tuition money for something more worthwhile.

      The details

      The study, conducted by the BCHA, analyzed data from UBC that included 3,605 students from 123 public schools and 33 private schools. The researchers set out to see if “going to private school conferred a measurable advantage in post-secondary school.”

      The data they collected through freedom-of-information requests showed no significant difference in four-year retention rates or four-year “sessional averages” (average marks in a student’s fourth year at UBC) between the students from public schools and private schools.

      The answer to their question, according to the data, is that there is no measurable advantage to going to private school rather than public school if you compare how students are doing in their fourth year at university.

      The BCHA describes itself as “an independent, non-partisan, registered charity that provides a community and a voice for humanists, atheists, agnostics and the non-religious of British Columbia.” It’s governed by an elected board of directors and has about 350 members and another 2,500 supporters across B.C.

      While the BCHA’s findings also showed students from private schools were more likely to graduate from UBC within four years than public school grads, it concluded “this result can be explained by the greater availability of university credit courses in private schools and socioeconomic status between private and public school families”.

      In other words, private-school kids may get a head start at the beginning and are less likely to have to take breaks during university to work and save money, but otherwise they’re no further ahead than their public-school counterparts by fourth year.

      Similar results to previous UBC study

      I wish we had more research like this to help guide education-policy decisions, along with personal family ones, especially when it comes to providing public funding for private schools. Parents aren’t the only ones who may be wasting money on private schools, as they get public funding in addition to tuition fees from parents. I’d rather see our public funds go to democratically governed public schools, where kids from all socioeconomic groups can get a chance to reach their full educational potential.

      St. George's private school in Vancouver.

      The only other local research I’ve come across that compares how kids do when they get to university is now several years old. It was done by UBC professor George Bluman, who compared 4,500 students between 2002 and 2006 and found that those who graduated from public schools in the Metro Vancouver region outperformed private-school students in first-year physics classes at UBC.

      Both the recent study and the Bluman study back up my own anecdotal experience from when I went to university, where my friends who’d gone to single-gender private schools tended to go a little wild in their first, unsupervised co-ed year and not make it back the next year, while those of us who were used to more freedom in public high schools managed to pace ourselves and make it through to graduation.

      I should note, however, that neither study compares what percentage of public-school graduates go on to university, compared with private schools. It also doesn’t factor in that many students who graduate from elite private schools go out of province or country to university or, in some high-profile cases, cheat their way into prestigious American schools by paying someone to write exams and entrance essays for them.

      No surprise to me

      We sent our own kids to public school because we know that B.C. has one of the most effective public-school systems in the world. Thousands of parents in other countries pay to send their kids to B.C.’s public schools, which offer a rich range of program options.

      If parents want to throw their money away paying tuition for private schools, they’re free to do so, but I hope they know their kids may do no better in university than kids who go through public schools. At least studies like these bust the myths perpetuated by a well-known right-wing think tank that produces misleading rankings that make it appear private schools do a better job of educating students than do public schools. It’s simply not the case.

      If students want to get an edge, they’d do well to choose their parents carefully. Kids who grow up in affluent homes with educated parents tend to do better in school and university than kids from low-income families. Go figure. Having a warm bed in a safe and comfortable home, nutritious meals, and educated adults who spend time reading, talking, and playing with you give you the biggest advantage of all.

      Affluent parents are more likely to be able to afford to squander their money on private-school tuition, so more kids from those types of homes are likely to graduate from private schools than are low-income students.

      Perhaps policymakers—and by that I mean provincial and federal politicians—should focus on giving better support to low-income parents so they can provide advantages to their kids, and making sure every child is securely housed and well nourished and has access to rich early learning opportunities.

      Former B.C. premier Christy Clark.
      Travis Lupick

      We could start by defunding private schools in B.C., which receive hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars each year. Redirect that money into public schools and services to give every kid the chance to reach their full potential.

      But don’t take my word for all of this. Here’s what former Premier Christy Clark had to say about this topic in a 2007 opinion editorial: “If you want a great education for your child, if you want to give them the best chance possible to succeed at a world-class university, save your money. Send them to your local public school.”

      I couldn’t have said it better myself.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.