Shaping education policy with big ideas and faith

Fred Herfst '64


Winter 2011

In 1970 Fred Herfst ’64 was vice principal of a school that, technically, didn’t exist and whose students, therefore, were truants.

Fraser Valley Christian High School (now Surrey Christian School, secondary campus), like all nonpublic schools in British Columbia before 1977, was not recognized under the laws of the province.

“The government ignored us totally,” Herfst said. “There were no regulations, no educational requirements, nothing.”

In Canada, education is solely the responsibility of each province, not the federal government. In some provinces private schools did have legal recognition—and partial funding. Private school groups in British Columbia decided, in 1966, to form an organization that would work for similar recognition and funding. They called their organization, which encompassed schools of several faith and pedagogical perspectives, the Federation of Independent School Associations (FISA).

From the very beginning of his teaching and administrative career in British Columbia, Herfst was active in the FISA.

“It was a way to work out my interest in big ideas, which was sparked in Dr. Gordon Spykman’s Calvinism 301 course,” he said.“There I began asking, ‘How do we use big ideas and faith to shape policy that’s good and fair?’”

Guided by big ideas and faith and executive director Gerry Ensing ’57, the FISA successfully lobbied the provincial government to pass the Independent Schools Support Act in 1977.

“It totally changed 100 years of education policy in the province,” Herfst said, “and the role of the FISA. Instead of lobbying for change, we had to concern ourselves with the nuts and bolts of educational law.”

With his careful attention to legal detail, Herfst turned out to be exactly the leader the FISA needed in its new role. He was appointed executive director when Ensing retired in 1986.

“I’m committee-oriented and nonconfrontational,” Herfst said.“I like to work for consensus on complicated issues. Once we gained recognition and 30 percent funding, we had to consider very carefully what regulatory requirements we could accept and still maintain the freedom of our member schools to teach and to hire from their particular faith perspectives. We’ve been able to maintain those freedoms while also securing improvements to
the Independent Schools Support Act.”

Those improvements have included an increase to 50 percent in per-pupil funding from the government and funding on a par with public schools for students with special needs.

At his retirement celebration in June 2011, several present and former members of government testified that it was Herfst’s respectful, collaborative style that enabled the FISA to accomplish so much in his 25 years of leadership.

“We decided that we would never use pressure tactics, never blindside our opponents and never use the media to generate public hype to get our way,” Herfst said.

Except once. In 2000, the New Democratic Party tried a surreptitious tactic to reduce independent school funding.

“It was my confrontational year,” laughed Herfst.

He marshaled a campaign that dumped 23,000 letters at the office of the Minister of Education, the largest letter-writing campaign in British Columbia’s history, and one that all major media outlets endorsed.

“But first we told the Minister what we were going to do,” he said. “Within a month, government buckled and reversed its position.”

The open, respectful style Herfst modeled has changed the FISA’s public status.

“We’re now regarded as a significant educational partner in the province,” he said, “one that is consulted on educational policy. For my 25 years’ work, that’s the greatest reward.”