Compared to Ontario, B.C. offers more choice and fairness in education—with better student results

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Appeared in the Ottawa Sun, February 28, 2018

A recent analysis found that Catholic school boards in Ontario are increasingly enrolling non-Catholic students, prompting calls to end non-Catholic enrolment, merge the separate and public school boards, or eliminate public Catholic schools altogether. However, there’s another approach that would both expand school choice across the province and be fairer to families of all faiths.

Ontario is one of three provinces (along with Alberta and Saskatchewan) that provide fully-funded Catholic education within the public school system. But unlike Quebec and all of western Canada, Ontario provides no public support to families who choose independent schools, which operate, to varying degrees, outside the public system. In other words, Ontario is the only province that provides taxpayer funding for schools of one religion—Catholicism—while denying public financial support to families who choose schools of other religions.

While funding for religious-based schools can be a contentious issue, Ontario policymakers can look west for a model that provides additional education options to families while maintaining fairness in the school system.

British Columbia does not have public Catholic school boards, but does partially fund independent schools including religious schools. With this approach, qualifying independent schools of all religions—or no religion, for that matter—are treated equally. Partial funding—equal to 35 or 50 per cent of the per-student grant public schools receive—helps level the playing field so tuition is more manageable for lower- and middle-income families.

In addition to increasing choice for families across the income spectrum, the B.C. model also saves taxpayer money.

A 2014 study found that, by adopting B.C.’s funding model, Ontario could save up to $1.9 billion a year. Considering public school spending in Ontario increased by 23.4 per cent between 2005/06 and 2014/15 (after accounting for enrolment changes and inflation), education savings of that magnitude would be welcomed. In comparison, B.C. experienced a 14 per cent increase in education spending over the same period, and has the second lowest per-student spending among the provinces.

And crucially, B.C.’s system has produced superior results. In the two most recent international PISA tests (2012 and 2015), B.C. outscored Ontario in math, reading and science. Meanwhile, Ontario’s most recent provincial testing revealed that half of Grade Six students are not meeting provincial standards in math.

Which brings us back to Catholic schools in Ontario. Despite these facts, supporters of the status quo often note that Canada’s Constitution protects publically-funded Catholic schools. This is true, but does not mean change is impossible. In fact, a 2016 study found that an amendment to the Constitution would only require a resolution passed by the Ontario legislature and then by Parliament in Ottawa. Both Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador have already produced such amendments, which helped abolish public separate school boards in those provinces. Clearly, a constitutional amendment on Catholic school funding would be relatively straightforward and help pave the way for education reform in Ontario.

As Ontarians debate the future of Catholic education, they should remember that there are working examples in Canada that not only provide more school choice but also increase fairness for families of other religions. One only needs to look at B.C. for a system that provides choice for families, value for taxpayers, and better results for students.

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