Public funds can help independent schools serve rural Ontario families

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Appeared in the Ottawa Sun, May 10, 2017

According to reports, Ontario school boards want to close 121 schools in the next three years, with a “disproportionate impact” on rural areas. The closures would affect 33,000 Ontario students.

Schools can be cornerstones of civic life in rural areas and small towns. As such, closing them can disrupt communities and make areas less attractive to families and businesses. Of course, these considerations should be weighed against the costs of operating schools in these areas.

Which brings us to the big question—can schools be economically viable in small towns and rural areas across Ontario? The answer to this question is a resounding “yes” and, for proof, we need only look to evidence from independent schools in Ontario.

Simply put, independent schools are owned and operated by organizations other than government, including charities, religious organizations and non-profits.

Many of Ontario’s nearly 1,000 independent schools are located in sparsely populated parts of the province, with 30 per cent of these schools in either rural areas or towns with fewer than 30,000 residents, proving that schools can function outside of large urban centres. Ontario’s independent schools also show that a large student body isn’t necessary for survival—about half serve fewer than 50 students, and more than quarter have fewer than 150.

In short, independent schools have demonstrated their ability to survive over time in areas where the government currently plans to shut schools down.

Conversely, if the government wants to make it easier for even more independent schools to open and create new community hubs across less-populated parts of the province, one option would be to reverse the province’s policy (unique in the country outside of Atlantic Canada) of not providing public support for independent schools.

Currently, parents choosing independent school in Ontario must pay the full cost of their child’s tuition—plus the taxes they pay to support government schools. However, in most other provinces, the government helps independent school communities and families by covering some of their operating costs.

In British Columbia, for example, independent schools receive up to 50 per cent of the per student operating grants allotted to public schools. And rely on tuition and donations to cover additional operating costs and all capital costs.

Similarly, Alberta provides a per student operating grant to qualifying independent schools equal to between 60 and 70 per cent of the amount given to government-run public schools.

In Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Quebec, various types of public support is also available for independent schools and their families.

In Ontario, providing similar support for independent schools would bring independent education within the financial reach of more families. This could lead to increased enrolment in existing independent schools and/or the creation of new schools in less-populated areas.

Again, in rural areas and small towns, schools are hubs that help bring people together and foster a sense of community. Ontario’s independent schools serve this function in towns, hamlets and rural areas across the province. A change in policy to support these schools—and the families that rely on them—could help parents avoid potentially less-desirable alternatives including sending their children to government-run public schools far away from home.

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