More school choice the answer for Ontario parents of special needs children

Printer-friendly version
Appeared in the National Post

In her May 20th column, Why I can't vote for Tim Hudak, our long-time friend, Tasha Kheiriddin, raised questions concerning the Tory plan for reforming K-12 education in Ontario. Her concerns were based on her daughter's special education needs (she revealed that her daughter has Asperger's syndrome). We have no doubt that every parent who read the piece empathized with her situation.

While we would quibble with several assertions made in the column, the main problem in the analysis offered by Ms. Kheiriddin is the absence of any discussion of school choice. The word 'choice' doesn't even appear in the column and yet the key issue identified by Ms. Kheiriddin is the lack of responsiveness of the public system to her daughter’s individual needs and the limited choice she as a parent is able to exercise within the Ontario education system. The solution seems obvious: more education choice for parents.

But don’t confuse our concerns with the column with an endorsement of the Tory platform. Our assessment is that all the parties and leaders have failed to discuss fundamental reform of the province’s K-12 education system and have instead focused on tinkering with the existing system.

Ms. Kheiriddin’s column implicitly endorses the status quo of Ontario’s education system with some suggested incremental improvements. Apparently Ms. Kheiriddin, like most Ontarians, is unaware of just how unique the Ontario K-12 education system is within Canada.

Ontario is one of only three provinces to offer fully-funded Catholic education and one of only two provinces to offer fully-funded Catholic Francophone education. More than 30 per cent of Ontario K-12 students now attend one of these two types of Catholic public schools.

Furthermore, depending on one’s school district, the majority of Ontarians have at least four competing public school boards to choose from for their children’s education: English Public, English Catholic, French Public, French Catholic and, in one instance, Separate Protestant. Such a system means multiple overlapping school boards with multiple government bureaucracies.

Despite these linguistic and religious choices within the public system, parents like Ms. Kheiriddin are left to their own devices. This is due in part because Ontario is one of five provinces that does not support parents who chose independent schools. These schools are often designed around a diversity of educational philosophies and arise from local communities working together to respond to identified student needs. The four western provinces along with Quebec fund between roughly 35 to 70 per cent of the operating costs of independent schools while Ontario and Atlantic Canada provide no support. This partially explains why almost 95 per cent of students in Ontario attend a public school.

Unlike western Canada and Quebec, Ontario relies almost exclusively on the public system to provide parents with education options, albeit quite limited. It is this latter point that Ms. Kheiriddin surprisingly misses. If Ontarians recognized the uniqueness of how they deliver K-12 education, they might be calling for more fundamental reforms. This is a missed opportunity for people like Ms. Kheiriddin who advocate for an education system that is more nimble and responsive to student and parent needs.

If Ontario provided K-12 education in a manner similar to BC or Quebec, for instance, the “expensive” schools Ms. Kheiriddin is interested in would not only be more financially accessible but the supply of educational alternatives would increase. The reduced cost to parents and the expanded supply of independent schools in provinces like BC and Quebec explain why roughly one-in-eight students in these provinces attend such schools.

Alberta’s charter schools provide another possible approach to providing educational diversity and choice. These popular public schools operate with more flexibility and autonomy than traditional public schools and are increasingly being used in other international jurisdictions to offer parents alternatives from poorly performing or unresponsive public schools.

Ms. Kheiriddin deserves credit for raising an issue that has to-date largely escaped public scrutiny. Unfortunately, she misses a real opportunity to raise the possibility of more fundamental reform of the province’s education system based on proven models used in other Canadian provinces.

Ontario’s education system, despite an almost doubling of financial support in the last decade, remains limited in addressing needs of many students and parents. If Ontario looked across the country, it would note that more responsive, equitable, and affordable options are possible. Other provinces—and indeed other countries—excelling in education point the way to reform but Ontarians need to be aware and interested. Hopefully Ms. Kheiriddin’s column will spur further genuine debate and discussion.

Subscribe to the Fraser Institute

Get the latest news from the Fraser Institute on the latest research studies, news and events.