Increasing share of students attending independent schools in Ontario

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Appeared in the Toronto Sun, June 27, 2017
Increasing share of students attending independent schools in Ontario

The share of students attending public schools in Ontario continues to decline while independent schools and homeschooling are growing more popular.

Although public schools remain the dominant education choice for parents, a recent analysis of ministry of education student enrolment data shows that compared to 2000-01 a smaller share of students attended a public school in 2014-15 (the latest year of comparable data) and a larger share are choosing independent schools.

To be sure, Ontario does have fewer school-age students (5 to 17 year olds), which results in a corresponding decline in public school enrolments. In fact, enrolment went from 2.14 million students in 2000-01 to only 2.0 million in 2014-15, a decline of 7.4 per cent.

But it’s not merely the declining number of students in government-run public schools that stands out, but rather the shrinking proportion of students that attend these schools.

Ontario has four public school systems—English public, French public, English Catholic, and French Catholic. In 2000-01, 64.2 per cent of all Ontario students attended an English public school compared to 62.6 per cent in 2014-15. (French public enrolments increased from 0.9 per cent to 1.3 per cent of all Ontario students over the same period.)

Taken together, English and French Roman Catholic separate school enrolment, over the period, dropped from 30.1 per cent of students to 29.7 per cent. This is a slight decline in the overall share of students but these schools still educate a significant portion of Ontario students—almost half as many students as English public schools.

With the share of students declining in public schools—from 95.1 per cent in 2000-01 to 93.6 per cent in 2014-15—an increasing number of families are choosing non-government options. Two main types exist in Ontario—independent schools and homeschooling. Both options are permitted; neither is funded.

Consider independent schools—independently owned and operated, and home to diverse religious or pedagogical orientations such as Christian non-Catholic, Jewish, Islamic or Montessori or arts-based education. Remarkably, given the absence of funding, the share of students attending independent schools increased from 4.9 per cent to 6.1 per cent of all Ontario students. Nearly 20,000 additional students now attend an independent school in Ontario compared to 2000-01, despite a 4.8 per cent decline over the same period in school-age population.

Again, all this growth occurred despite the lack of government funding to defray even the most basic costs associated with teaching young Ontarians to read, write and be active. Consider the contrast with Quebec and all four western provinces, which fund independent schools up to 70 per cent of the per-student amount allocated for operational expenses in public schools. Such funding not only lessens the financial burden on parents by lowering the price, but make independent schools accessible to a wider spectrum of families.

Homeschooling enrolments tell a similar story of growth. Although the official enrolments are modest (6,500 students) and the share of all Ontario students being homeschooled remains small (0.3 per cent), from 2007/08 to 2014/15 (the most recent period of comparable data) enrolments increased more than 75 per cent.

Shifts in K-12 student enrolments make at least one thing clear—despite the financial implications for Ontario families, parents are increasingly choosing non-government forms of education for their children.