Families in other provinces enjoy more school choice than Ontario families

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Appeared in the Hamilton Spectator, February 15, 2024
Families in other provinces enjoy more school choice than Ontario families

Ontario classrooms are in trouble. And while the Ford government is making some positive changes, such as the recent reintroduction of some foundational skills in the K-12 curriculum, you won’t get too far trying to drain a pool with an eyedropper. Big problems require bold solutions, which should include more educational choice outside the government system.

In British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Quebec a portion of parents’ tax dollars follow their children to schools of their choice, enabling families to more affordably choose independent schools, charter schools (Alberta only) and homeschooling. Ontario, meanwhile, provides a complete lack of support for families wanting to affordably send their children to schools outside of those run by the government. As a result, independent school enrolment as a share of total K-12 enrolment in Ontario (6.9 per cent) is much lower than in B.C. (13.2 per cent) and Quebec (11.7 per cent).

Of course, Ontario kids can attend English or French public or Catholic schools, but they’re all government schools, and the homogenous nature of government schools means they are not designed or incentivized to innovate or cater to diverse student groups. Indeed, 92.8 per cent of Ontario students attend one-size-fits-all government schools, which may not be a good fit if your child happens to learn differently, has varying interests, requires rigorous academic challenges or more physical play in nature to focus. According to the evidence, more school choice leads to more specialized and diverse schools, greater innovation, accountability, and responsiveness to parents in both independent and government schools, and ultimately more engaged students and improved learning.

Government schools also aren’t cheap. The Ontario government spent $30.5 billion on government public schools in 2020/21, the latest year of available data, or more than $15,000 per student. And from 2012/13 to 2020/21, spending on Ontario government schools increased beyond what was necessary to account for inflation and enrolment growth. But if the Ontario government empowered lower- and middle-income families to send their children to independent schools, it can save taxpayer money.

If policymakers in Ontario want to reap these rewards, they can look to other jurisdictions for reform ideas. For example, in Australia the government funds independent schools for children but scales that funding based on need, providing up to 90 per cent of the cost of independent school tuition for children from lower-income families. Only 64.5 per cent of students in Australia attend government schools, with the remaining families choosing other options.

In many U.S. states and Singapore (a world leader in PISA test scores), governments establish dedicated education savings accounts, increasing access to a wide range of educational options. Typically, governments fund (with parents’ tax dollars) these savings accounts, which parents can use for educational expenses including independent school tuition, tutoring and educational therapies for students with exceptional needs. Some U.S. states provide families with tax credits for these same expenses.

No doubt, these expenses ring true for many Ontario families. School choice policies might make a splash, but families in most of Canada and across the globe—who already enjoy educational choice—will tell you the water’s fine.

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