By Derek J. Allison
Deani Van Pelt
and Beth Green
You could call it a step forward in fairness for Canadians who send their kids to independent schools. The Toronto Board of Health recently recommended the extension of its student nutrition programs to qualified independent schools. That means more than 300 independent schools could gain access to a publicly-funded breakfast program.
Many may ask, “Wouldn’t that mean wasting scarce public money feeding rich kids?” No, not really. Unquestioningly assuming that all parents who choose independent schools are rich defies logic and reality. It also perpetuates a dangerous stereotype, distorting social policy and breeding injustice.
Independent schools are rarely bastions of elite privilege. In fact, less than four per cent of independent schools in Ontario are elite preparatory schools whose students are unlikely to quality for a breakfast program. In any case, only a few can afford the prestigious private schools that dominate popular and media perceptions. A recent study estimated such elite schools accounted for fewer than five per cent of Canada’s 2,000 or so independent schools.
Most people choosing independent schools are ordinary Canadians. People for Education found the average family income in a low-income Ontario public school is $44,455. Meanwhile, a 2007 survey of independent school parents found that 21 per cent of families reported annual incomes below $50,000. And, a recent study of household incomes in British Columbia found that parents who choose non-elite independent schools (that is, mostly religious schools) have average after tax household incomes of about $78,900, while the average B.C. family that chooses a public school had an average income of $77,400 – a difference of less than two per cent.
When assistance is provided for lower income families, shouldn’t all that qualify benefit? The Toronto Board of Health deserves great credit for seeking to remedy such injustice by extending access to student nutrition programs in all eligible schools, public and independent.
But a breakfast program is only one example of the injustices independent schools endure. There are others. For the most part, public school kids get to ride on school buses while independent school parents must carpool or pay for private buses. Even when independent schools teach the provincial curriculum, they usually have to pay for textbooks and other instructional materials. Students must usually provide or pay for classroom supplies, not to mention the before and after-school programs and specialized psychological testing commonly available at public schools. Even when a province requires independent schools to employ certified teachers, most fall outside provincial pension plans.
Alberta’s new Act to Reduce School Fees provides more systemic discrimination against independent schools. This legislation eliminates fees for textbooks, workbooks, photocopying, paper supplies, and eligible transportation costs only for public schools. It specifically excludes schools of choice. Apologists will say the legislation defines schools of choice to include alternative public schools as well as independent schools. This only reveals the deliberate discrimination against parent choice.
And in Ontario, while elementary independent schools aren’t required to participate in standardized testing, those that do so must pay a per student fee. Apart from imposing additional inequitable costs on independent schools, this practice does a disservice to both parents and society by ensuring provincial test results exclude thousands of children and allow hundreds of schools to remain unaccountable on these measures.
Let’s also remember that independent schools – which receive no provincial support in Ontario – contribute to the province’s bottom line. Were all Ontario independent school students to exercise their right to attend a government-run school, the Ontario Federation of Independent Schools estimates it would cost the provincial treasury $1.6 billion to accommodate them. So, taxpayers whose kids attend independent schools both support the public school system and ease the burden on cash-strapped education systems.
Simply put, the role independent schools play in public education is more significant than many appreciate. It is one thing not to fund independent schools. It is quite another to discriminate against parents choosing such schools by subjecting them to unjustified extra costs. As shown by the decision of the Toronto Board of Health, students deserve to be treated equally, regardless of whether their schools are financed from public or private funds.
Derek J. Allison is Emeritus Professor of Education at Western University and author of Cardus’ Toward a Warmer Climate for Ontario’s Private Schools. Deani Neven Van Pelt is a senior fellow at Cardus. Beth Green is program director for Cardus Education.