Lesson for Canadian policymakers—Sweden gives parents more choice in education

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Appeared in the Hamilton Spectator, November 22, 2016

Parents across Canada want more choice for the education of their children. The share of K-12 students attending independent (private) schools is increasing while the share attending public schools is declining in every province. Despite the evidence, teacher unions and other groups continue to call for the reduction or even elimination of partial government funding for independent schools in provinces that provide such funding.

Instead of ceding to these demands, policymakers should be aware of Sweden, widely considered one of the most progressive industrialized countries, and its full government funding model that increases school choice for all parents, particularly for modest-income families.

A recent study found that as full government funding (on a per student basis for operational expenses) was extended to independent schools in Sweden, enrolments in independent schools increased from less than two per cent of total enrolment in 1992 to more than 14 per cent in 2014 in elementary and lower-secondary grades, and to more than 25 per cent in upper-secondary grades.

Similar trends occurred in Canada. Between 2000-01 and 2012-13, in the five provinces that partially fund independent schools—British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Quebec—independent school enrolments increased by 20.5 per cent, while public school enrolments declined by 8.1 per cent.

In Ontario, where the provincial government provides no funding, the share of students attending independent schools also increased over the same period, from 4.9 per cent to 5.6 per cent. These modest increases in Ontario illustrate that, without government funding, lower-income families face financial barriers to enrolling in independent schools. In provinces where the financial burden is lessened through partial government funding, more families, particularly families of lesser financial means, are able to access schools of their choice.

So while it’s clear parents across Canada increasingly want greater education choice, many independent schools, which can be religiously and pedagogically diverse, remain financially out of reach especially for many low- and middle-income families.

In addition to the full funding model for independent schools, Sweden also adopted another unique policy worthy of consideration. Sweden allows both for-profit and non-profit independent schools to be equally eligible for government funding.

In fact, for-profit independent schools now dominate independent school enrolments in Sweden—64 per cent of elementary and lower-secondary independent school students, and 85 per cent of upper-secondary independent school students, attend for-profit schools.

By providing funding for both non-profit  and for-profit schools, Sweden has fostered a more competitive environment for education providers, which encourages—even forces—schools to respond to the needs, preferences and wishes of parents. This equitable funding is particularly informative for the five Canadian provinces that provide partial government funding for independent schools, since none currently fund for-profit schools.

Most importantly, increasing school choice for families of limited means is key, so Sweden’s example of providing more comparable levels of funding for both independent and public schools should not be overlooked by Canadian policymakers.

It’s clear that parents across Canada want more diversity in the education options available for their children. Progressive Sweden provides at least two policy solutions worth our attention.

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