Fraser Forum

Ontario parents deserve more choice for their children’s education

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A story in the September 4th edition of the National Post detailing the cheerful return of Marni Soupcoff’s son to his independent school was an experience shared by parents and their children across the country, even though Ontario is a province marked by its less than hospitable stance towards its private schools.

In all of Canada’s larger provinces except Ontario (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Quebec) independent schools that satisfy official standards receive varying amounts of government financial support. Yet despite the complete lack of financial assistance, private school enrolment in Ontario has increased almost every year for the last half-century.

A 2013 Auditor General’s report pegged the number of students at 110,000 attending around 1,000 schools. These are not insignificant numbers. Ontario’s private school enrolment exceeds the approximately 95,000 students attending schools operated by its Francophone boards and is not far short of the total of 125,000 attending Nova Scotia public schools.

Parents choose independent school for many reasons. Often it is the solid academic achievement experienced by their students. Recent international analysis of performance scores showed, for example, that Canadian 15-year-olds in Canadian independent schools outperformed their peers in Canadian public schools in math, even accounting for socio-economic differences.

But widespread parental attraction to independent schools usually has to do with just the qualities and attractions enjoyed by Soupcoff’s family. As she put it, her son’s school is “a small, friendly place with a homey feel”.

Many non-public schools fit this description but even in the larger independent schools, parents are typically elated to experience the ease and openness of communication also noted by Soupcoff. Our research on why parents choose private schools in Ontario would add several other ‘C’ qualities, including a sense of community, cooperation, collaboration and commitment. As Soupcoff put it, these and other features of independent schools typically identified by parents sensibly fit under the broad heading of culture, an important attraction to such schools.

Still, when it comes to non-government education, parents are not just consumers purchasing an educational product as Soupcoff asserts. Many independent schools are founded by parents, parents who are restless for more than the basic offerings made available by the government monopoly provider. When they join together and establish a new, usually not-for-profit, school, they add to the supply of options available.

When parents and educators gather together around shared ideals to create a committed school, a powerful and humanizing dynamic emerges that animates and enriches education, their children’s lives, and also spills over to benefit society. Canadian think tank Cardus recently found that graduates of Canadian independent schools make good citizens who are more likely to vote, volunteer, and donate than their publicly-schooled peers, even after controlling for socio-economic factors.

For these and other reasons we need a more supportive climate for private schools in Ontario. This need not, at least in the short term, include access to the kind of financial support provided by other large provinces where 35 to 60 per cent of per-pupil government operating grants provided to public schools is offered to qualifying independent schools.

To begin, support for independent schools in Ontario should include the elimination of unnecessary barriers, such as the fees currently charged for registration, for Education, Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) testing, and for inspections related to granting of Ontario Secondary School Diplomas (OSSD).  It should include granting access to educational resources such as National Film Board offerings.  Such opportunities are afforded to 95 per cent of Ontario students but withheld from the five per cent that attend non-government schools.

To be clear, we’re not suggesting the province reduce its regulation of private schools. As one of us has recently argued at length, Ontario should take a more active part in its stewardship of non-public schools. Compared to the other Big Five provinces, Ontario has neglected its private schools. It’s long past time for a close and careful look at how more Ontario parents can reap the alternative education benefits enjoyed by Soupcoff’s family and how the rest of society can benefit from sensibly supervised alternative ways of achieving desired education standards that promise enhanced parent satisfaction, happier, higher achieving students, and greater financial efficiency.

On this last point, the Auditor General’s report estimated that Ontario’s private schools either save taxpayers over $1 billion a year, or enable the province to spend this amount on other priorities. The Ontario Federation of Independent Schools is less conservative, estimating it would cost taxpayers an additional  $1.6 billion annually to educate current private school pupils in public schools.

It’s time for a sustained conversation about how Ontario’s private-independent schools can best contribute to building a free and democratic society such as ours.

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