Ontario: look west for solutions on independent school funding

The province should end its outdated barriers to education choice for students and parents

ontario independent schoolVANCOUVER, B.C. Jan. 17, 2017/ Troy Media/ – As we enter a new year and consider the opportunity 2017 holds, it’s a good time to reflect on the lingering disadvantage felt by Ontario parents who choose independent schools.

Recent independent school growth provides clear evidence – Ontario parents want more options for the education of their children. And yet, setting aside Atlantic Canada, no other province makes the choice of an independent school as financially difficult for parents as Ontario. Fortunately, other provinces, and other countries such as Australia, provide solutions that Ontario should consider.

Again, let’s recognize that parents across Ontario want more choice in education. According to data from the ministry of education, independent school enrolment grew by 9.4 per cent between 2000-01 and 2012-13, the most recent year of available enrolment data. During the same period, enrolment in public schools declined 5.2 per cent.

Since then, the growth in independent school enrolment looks to have continued, as evidenced by the 260 new independent schools that opened since 2012-13. That’s a 27 per cent increase in just four years (2012-13 to 2016-17).

But barriers – particularly financial barriers – to choice persist. Ontario parents must pay the full bill if they choose anything other than a public school, unlike in Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. In those provinces, qualifying independent schools receive a percentage of the amount to public schools (usually about 50 per cent of funding, on a per-student basis, for operational expenses).

Does this funding remove financial barriers to education choice for many parents? Definitely. One in eight students in B.C., for example, attends an independent school, compared to one in 20 in Ontario. But even in B.C., some families, particularly families with lower incomes, still face choice barriers when schools charge tuition to make up the difference. That’s why the Australian model should be of interest.

In Australia, government funding for independent schools is partially determined by the socio-economic profile of the communities from which students come. In other words, the value of the government grants for kids to attend independent schools depends on their neighbourhood’s income profile. Grants for children from affluent neighbourhoods are lower than for children from poorer neighbourhoods. Indeed, the range of government funding for independent schools in Australia is 20 to 90 per cent.

No such adjustment, made to reflect the “ability to pay” for independent schools, takes place in any of the five Canadian provinces that partially fund independent school education.

Parents in Australia also increasingly relish the opportunity to choose the type of education their children receive. More than one in three students in Australia attends a non-government school. In fact, between 2001 and 2011, independent school enrolments grew by 34.6 per cent while government school enrolments almost stagnated, growing only by 1.8 per cent. Clearly, policies that remove financial barriers for lower-income families in Australia have contributed to more educational opportunity for all.

Ontario should release its clutch on outdated barriers to education choice. Perhaps 2017 will be the year it finally looks west, to provinces with greater choice, for policy solutions. Or look even further west and consider Australia’s remedy for reducing the choice disadvantage of lower-income families.

Deani Van Pelt is director of the Barbara Mitchell Centre for Improvement in Education at the Fraser Institute.

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