More Nova Scotia families choosing independent schools—despite lack of government support

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Appeared in the Halifax Chronicle Herald, November 27, 2023

It’s a priority for any parent that their child thrives at school. While most students across Canada attend government-run public schools, a variety of alternatives exist including independent schools, charter schools and homeschooling. In Nova Scotia, the number of parents choosing options outside the government system is on the rise—and that’s a good thing. Why? It means more Nova Scotia kids are finding schools best suited for them.

School choice—the ability of families to affordably choose different schooling options—provides several benefits. First, independent schools, which offer a range of different focus areas, create diverse options for students (e.g. enriched academics, performing arts, etc.). Many independent schools also cater to students with learning disabilities and are a better fit than the largely one-size-fits-all government public system.

Second, school choice introduces competition, creating stronger incentives for schools—both government and independent—to improve and innovate, so more families are drawn to enroll. Research has shown that in general, greater school choice leads to improved outcomes in all school types (in other words, for all students).

Unfortunately, Nova Scotia families don’t have affordable school choice, unlike families in other provinces. Quebec and the four western provinces all allow parents to redirect some of their education tax dollars to independent schools, thereby reducing the cost of independent school tuition for families. In other words, the money follows students to the schools they choose.

This makes sense. When parents in these other provinces choose independent schools, they relieve the government-run public system of the cost of educating their child. Unfortunately, no such option exists for Nova Scotian parents. If a family in Nova Scotia chooses to send their child to Waldorf School, for example, they must pay the full cost of tuition—while also paying the full cost of sending their child to a government public school via their exceptionally high tax burden.

In 2019-20, the latest year of available data, only 3.1 per cent of Nova Scotia students attended independent schools. By contrast, in British Columbia, where the money follows the student, 13.2 per cent of students attended independent schools. Why does this matter? Students thrive when they attend schools that best meet their needs. B.C. not only has a greater share of kids attending independent schools, it  also has better student performance overall (as measured by student test scores) while Nova Scotian students perform comparatively worse.

And yet, even though it’s a financial challenge for many families, a recent study found the share of Nova Scotia students educated in independent schools increased from 1.6 per cent in 2000/01 to 3.1 per cent in 2019/20. The share of homeschoolers is also on the rise, from 0.4 per cent to 1.2 per cent.

Nova Scotia still ranks below most provinces when it comes to the share of students educated outside of government-run schools. High-income families can always choose their schools. But without affordable alternatives, lower- and middle-income kids remain stuck in their local government schools even if it’s not a good fit.

There is some good news. Nova Scotia already has a small school choice program (the Tuition Support Program) currently limited to students with significant learning needs, giving them the chance to thrive in schools designed to help them succeed. No need to reinvent the wheel. The Houston government could expand this program to provide more opportunity for school choice, particularly among those who can’t currently afford it.

Children are best served by diversity in education. While more Nova Scotian parents are exercising school choice, the share of students in the province attending independent schools remains low. Nova Scotia should open up the education system so families of all income levels can choose their kids’ schools.

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