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Opinion  

Independence, not elitism

By Jason Clemens and Sasha Parvani

Debate about how best to provide education for British Columbia's children should be front and centre as the province nears a general election. But that debate shouldn't sink to ill-informed stereotypes.

When many British Columbians hear the terms "private schools" and "independent schools," they think of elite (and expensive) preparatory schools that cater to the wealthiest. This simply doesn't reflect reality.

Only Quebec has a larger share of its kindergarten-to-Grade-12 students enrolled in independent schools. In 2013-14, the most recent year of available data, 75,402 students were enrolled in independent schools in B.C., or 12.3 per cent of all kindergarten to Grade 12 students in the province.

The data shows that elite schools make up only a small share of the total independent schools in the province. A recent Fraser Institute study provided an in-depth categorization of all such schools in Canada. It concluded that only 28 (or 8.2 per cent) of the B.C.'s 340 independent schools were elite preparatory schools.

That means more than 90 per cent of the independent schools in B.C. don't cater to an elite. Rather, they serve average British Columbians, who for a variety of reasons want their children educated outside the government system. The two most prominent explanations are religion, and alternative or specialty education.

B.C.'s government school system doesn't offer any religious education options. Parents who want their children educated in a religious environment must choose independent schools. According to the study, 55.3 per cent of independent schools in B.C. had a religious orientation.

One-fifth of independent institutions in B.C. are categorized as specialty schools that address specific curriculum and pedagogical preferences. Waldorf schools, Montessori schools, special-needs education, as well as schools focusing on specific subject matter such as arts, athletics or STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fall within this categorization.

However, the idea that independent schools cater to wealthy British Columbians persists. Some suggest that while not all independent schools are elite preparatory institutions, the parents who choose independent schools are still affluent compared to parents choosing government schools.

A recent study refutes this claim. Using B.C. Ministry of Education and Statistics Canada data, the study examined the average after-tax income for families choosing public schools versus those with children in independent schools.

At first blush, it does appear that families with children in independent schools have higher income: $88,367 (after taxes) compared to $77,396, on average, for families with children in public schools.

However, that analysis includes families with children at elite schools. If those families are removed, the average after-tax income for the remaining families with children attending independent schools falls to $78,894, just 1.9 per cent above the average income for families with children in public schools. So families choosing non-elite independent schools have essentially the same income as those choosing public schools.

Jason Clemens and Sasha Parvani are analysts with the Fraser Institute.

– Troy Media



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Avoiding new Dark Age

By David Suzuki

If you own a smartphone, you have more computing power at your fingertips than NASA scientists had when they put people on the moon in 1969.

Technology moves in leaps and bounds. Every day, products are becoming smaller, faster, more efficient and accessible to a greater number of people.

Despite the phenomenal advances in everything from communications to transportation, many people still believe the only way to get energy is to burn fossil fuels, as we’ve been doing since the dawn of the Industrial Age almost 300 years ago. In fact, evidence suggests people have been burning coal for heat as far back as 3490 BC in China.

Naysayers have always been with us. At various times, people have argued that humans would never be able to cross oceans in steam-powered ships or fly in airplanes, let alone send spacecraft beyond the solar system.

Many technological leaps stoked fears, often valid, that new inventions would put people out of work. The growing automobile industry in the early 20th century killed jobs in the horse-and-buggy business.

We’ve long been using coal, oil and gas for heat and energy for good reasons. They’re incredibly powerful and valuable resources that both provide and store energy. 

Despite their efficiency and cost, fossil fuels aren’t better energy sources than solar, wind and tide, even though renewables require separate storage for large-scale deployment. Fossil fuels pollute the environment, cause illness and death, accelerate global warming and damage or destroy ecosystems. They’ll also eventually run out. They’re already more difficult and expensive to obtain. Easily accessible sources are becoming depleted, spurring increased reliance on damaging and dangerous unconventional sources and methods such as oilsands, deep-sea drilling and fracking.

Fortunately, clean energy technologies are improving daily. Wind and solar are coming down in cost, as are energy storage systems. Electrical grid management systems are changing with advances in computer science. Innovative ideas like biomimicry are showing great promise in the energy field with research into areas like artificial photosynthesis. 

Embracing science, innovation and progressive ideas gives us hope for a healthier future instead of relying on outdated and destructive ways of generating energy. 

We’re well into the 21st century. If humans want to make it to the 22nd, we must change course. 

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation senior editor Ian Hanington.



Election reform tap dance

By Dermod Travis

Last week, Premier Christy Clark heard the four letters that every politician dreads: RCMP.

Only five days after announcing its investigation into lobbyists who may have had personal donations to the BC Liberals and NDP reimbursed by unknown third-parties, Elections B.C. called in the cops.

The Sensitive Investigations Unit has been tasked with investigating the possible "cleansing" of political donations.

One gets a sense from their reaction that the Liberal party's initial damage control went out the window in favour of full-blown crisis management. 

Clark who has tried to ignore growing public anger over her fundraising practices – think $10,000 a plate cash-for-access dinners – may have finally blinked. 

She skipped question period two days in a row last week. Then, word began to leak the premier was preparing to go further than she had ever gone before on electoral finance reform.

The Diva of Deflection, as Independent MLA Vicki Huntington likes to call Clark, lived up to the billing on Monday.

Using the B.C. government's proposed real-time disclosure of political donations bill as a prop, Clark announced that if re-elected the Liberals will establish an independent panel to review B.C.'s Elections Act.

"What I'm proposing today is a process to take political parties and politicians out of the process," said Clark. "Regular review is important because there haven't been significant changes since 1995."

I guess that goes to how one defines “significant.”

Clark didn't see the need to establish a comparable panel when the government passed legislation to muzzle third-parties in what was once called the pre-campaign period – a move later overturned by the B.C. Court of Appeal – or when it amended the Elections Act so that all political parties would be given an electronic copy of everyone who votes.

Making her announcement, Clark was clear that members of the panel would have to be accepted by a unanimous vote of the legislature, which everyone knows is a regular occurrence in Victoria (mild sarcasm).

Clark added that any recommendations the panel might make four years later – or as the B.C. Liberal party prefers to say $60 million later – would have to be adopted unanimously as well. 

When pigs fly.

Meanwhile, in a remarkable display of decisiveness, B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan can be marked down as squarely undecided on real-time disclosure, telling CKNW: “Take it as a yes or no, however you like it. We disclose annually, as does the Conservative party, the Marijuana Party, Libertarian Party, and the Liberal Party.”

Clark's legislation came with a couple of unexpected and positive add-ons: the threshold for reporting political contributions will be lowered to $100 annually from $250. And we may get to find out who attends those elite cash-for-access dinners, albeit not retroactively.

Clark's office was quick to point out that she had misspoken on that retroactive thing. Call it the premier's foxtrot week: one step forward, two steps back, then sidestep the real issue. 

– Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC.



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How to fight the OD crisis

By Marshall Smith

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came to Vancouver recently to meet with first responders and health-care workers to tell them the entire country must work together to solve the opioid crisis, the doorway to healing and recovery was opened a little wider.

Recognizing the problem is not isolated to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside or major urban centres is a big step in solving this national crisis.

At the time of Trudeau’s round-table meeting and conference, he told listeners, “This is a crisis that seems, for most Canadians, to be very far away. Something that’s limited to certain tougher parts of town, to the West Coast, but we are seeing a spread of opioids across the country and we’re seeing it spread far and wide across socio-economic levels, across communities. We need to come together as a country to help our most vulnerable.”

Most importantly, Trudeau made a clear statement that to solve this crisis we must go far beyond “band aid solutions” and focus on long-term strategies. With this recognition comes a need to focus on recovery and not just short-term fixes.

Harm-reduction can be a necessary first step toward establishing a long-term answer.  We must all look to how we can build upon public health approaches so as to be able to best help people out of a life of addiction.

If we’ve learned anything from the overdose crisis in BC, it is that when harm reduction is relied upon without the additional tools, it does not address perhaps the most important aspect of a long-term solution – ensuring that those suffering from addiction have access to treatment programs and facilities that offer the kind of psychological and emotional support they need for recovery. 

We cannot lose sight of the fact addiction is an illness that requires a broad evidence-based response.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse tells us addiction changes the brain in fundamental ways that result in normal needs and desires being replaced with compulsive behaviours, which override the ability to control what can be dangerous impulses. You would not expect someone suffering from a mental illness to get control of his or her life without any professional intervention, so why would we expect a drug addicted person to recover without medical assistance? 

There is much more that we can and must do to build a long-term approach to this crisis. It can start with reducing the stigma of recovery and advocating for better services, health assessments and referrals for people with addiction.  

Alongside the public health and acute treatment services that must be established, we also need comprehensive recovery services.  This should include establishment of recovery community centres across BC and at colleges and even high schools. 

Every mayor in this province should have a recovery working group, made up of people in recovery, to measure and build their community’s recovery capital and resilience to addiction.

Not until we begin to take a long-term, multi-levelled approach will we be able to resolve this crisis.

– Marshall Smith is chair of the BC Recovery Council 



Log ban would be bad news

By Joel Wood

With the B.C. provincial election two months away, the contentious issue of log exports has emerged again.

Some politicians, policy analysts and unions have argued for a ban. While the current government has allowed limited exports of logs, it has imposed an overly complex export approval process.

Banning log exports would be an economically harmful policy. There are better options that could benefit the forestry sector and B.C. businesses.

By preventing access to the higher log prices available in other countries, a ban would further suppress local log prices, hurting producers and those employed in logging. And while it would benefit mill owners and mill workers with cheaper logs, this benefit is less than the negative impact on the logging sector.

In a 2014 study, I evaluated three options to reform B.C.'s log export policies: A ban on log exports, a streamlined export quota system, and a policy of free-trade in logs. The results clearly indicate the latter two policies have much higher net-benefits. 

Banning a product from export is also inconsistent with how we treat other goods and services. Should we ban exports of salmon and only export prepared, frozen salmon meals and other salmon products? Should we ban the export of gold and only export jewelry? Rather than falling victim to the value-added fallacy of supporting jobs in manufacturing over jobs in primary sectors, B.C. could focus on getting the best prices for our resources by reforming and streamlining the current log export process. 

To export logs from B.C., a company must obtain approval from the federal government and, in many instances, the province. To apply for an export permit, a log must be first offered for sale to domestic buyers. A government-appointed committee then decides whether any domestic offers were "fair" and whether they deem the log "surplus" to domestic needs. Only then can the log be exported. 

This process results in delays that increase handling costs and prevent logging companies from securing long-term contracts with foreign buyers.

Taking advice from the Commission on Tax Competitiveness would be a better option. Currently, businesses pay Provincial Sales Tax on capital expenditures and on many of inputs of production, e.g., software, energy, telecom services. PST is also embedded in many of the prices of these inputs that were produced by another firm since that firm payed PST on the inputs they used. The result: consumers aren't just hit with the PST at time of purchase, but also accumulated PST hidden in the purchase price. The 2016-17 B.C. budget exempted electricity from PST, but did not exempt the other inputs. Reforming the PST is a good place to start.

Simply put, streamlining the log export process and reforming the PST are both better options than banning log exports if we want to ensure a prosperous province.

Joel Wood is an assistant professor in the School of Business and Economics at Thompson Rivers University and a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute.

– Troy Media



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