Despite lack of funding, parents increasingly choose independent schools in Ontario

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Appeared in the National Post, October 9, 2015

In Ontario, more and more parents are choosing to enroll their children in independent schools. This despite the fact that Ontario, unlike several other provinces, provides no financial assistance to parents who choose alternatives to the public school system. By recognizing the growing demand for independent schooling, Ontario has an opportunity to reform education funding policy in ways that help parents afford the school of their choice while saving money for taxpayers.

First, let’s look at the numbers. Between the school years 2000/01 and 2012/13, enrolment in Ontario’s independent schools increased by 9.4 per cent. What makes this increase remarkable is that it occurred during a 13-year period when the province’s school age population (5 to 17 year olds) was shrinking. In total, Ontario’s school age population shrank by 3.7 per cent during these years. Public school enrolment fell by 5.2 per cent.
The rising popularity of independent schools is not unique to Ontario. In fact, independent school enrolment has increased in every Canadian province, except New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, since 2000/01, despite the fact that every province except Alberta has a shrinking school-age population.

With more and more parents seeking alternatives to the public school system, it’s important to ask whether governments are doing enough to help parents afford to send their children to the school of their choice. Comparisons to other provinces suggest Ontario’s government could be doing much more.

Currently, 5.6 per cent of Ontario’s students attend independent schools. This places Ontario near the middle of the Canadian pack in terms of independent school enrolment. Three provinces, however, have significantly higher rates of independent school enrolment than Ontario. Manitoba (at 7.6 per cent) has a higher rate than Ontario, while British Columbia (11.6 per cent) and Quebec (12.6 per cent) have independent school enrolment rates that more than double Ontario’s.

One reason for the higher rates of independent school participation in each of these provinces is that in all three jurisdictions, independent schools receive some amount of funding from their provincial governments for each student they educate. In B.C. eligible independent schools receive 35 or 50 per cent of the amount allocated for operations per student in the local school district. In Manitoba, funded independent schools receive 50 per cent of the relevant per pupil allocation and in Quebec it’s about 60 per cent. This assistance reduces the out-of-pocket costs for parents, making independent schooling more accessible to many parents who may not otherwise be able to afford it.

In addition to helping defray costs for parents, this policy approach also creates significant savings for taxpayers. Since the per-student grants to independent schools are significantly less than 100 per cent of the per-student operating budget in local school districts, taxpayers wind up saving between 40-65 per cent of a child’s per-student operating cost every time a student moves from the public system to an independent school.

For Ontario, reforming our educational funding model along similar lines would be a better strategy for improving our education system, instead of simply continuing to throw more and more money at a model that’s clearly increasingly less satisfying to more parents. The province continues to increase per pupil funding for public schools at a faster rate than the national average. Specifically, for the decade prior to 2012/13, per-pupil spending in public schools increased by 57.3 per cent, reaching $12,299 per student in the most recent year for which we have data.

And yet this increase in government expenditure is, as enrolments indicate, not sufficient to satisfy the expectations of an increasing number of Ontario parents for the education of their children.

It’s time Ontario takes a look at provinces like B.C. and Quebec for alternative approaches to funding education, which respond to the demand for more choice while relieving the budget pressure faced by the provincial government.

In the end, perhaps it’s possible to satisfy both parents and taxpayers. We just need to start paying more attention to what the numbers tell us about what Ontario families want.

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