Ontario parents deserve more school choices for their children

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Appeared in the Lakeshore News

There is no question that a great education is essential to success in the 21st century. Completing high school, for example, markedly reduces the chances of unemployment or the probability of remaining trapped in low-income jobs.

The importance of education to a child’s future success explains the increasing interest on the part of parents, and therefore politicians, in ensuring not only a functioning but thriving education system. Supporting parents in choosing their children’s education and fostering competition between schools is vital to such efforts.

Evidence continues to mount on the broad benefits of parents having educational choices for their children and the competition between schools that this implies. Going back to ground-breaking work completed by then Harvard professor Caroline Hoxby in the early 1990s through to research published in 2014, the findings increasingly show that empowering parents and forcing schools to compete benefits students, the broad education system including public schools, the broader economy, and even teachers themselves.

In Canada and depending on the province, some school choice already exists. In Ontario, almost 95 per cent of students are enrolled in a public school. Too many people, however, leap to a conclusion that the high percentage of students in the public system means no choice for parents or competition between schools. This mistaken observation coupled with the decent performance of Ontario in international rankings leads observers to conclude that choice and competition are not important in fostering a well-functioning education system.

The key misunderstanding is the level of choice and competition already embedded in Ontario’s public education system. Just over 63 per cent of enrolled students are in an Anglophone public non-religious school. The remaining students in the public system are enrolled in public non-religious French (1.1 per cent), Catholic English (27.1 per cent), or Catholic French (3.2 per cent). Ontario is similar to both Saskatchewan and Alberta in terms of providing multiple competing public school systems. As well, Ontario’s public system also provides a small number of protestant schools. So, depending on your city, you could have up to five public schools competing for students.

Still, Ontario could improve its menu of school choices. Unlike British Columbia, the Prairie provinces and Quebec, Ontario does not fund independent schools. Those other provinces provide funding to independent schools ranging from 35 to 80 per cent of per student education costs (operating costs only), depending on the province and type of independent school.

Another way Ontario could expand educational choice and competition is to allow charter schools, autonomous, not-for-profit schools within the public system. Alberta augments its public system with such charter schools, part of the public system and fully funded by taxpayers. They are different than public schools in that they have more flexibility in setting curriculum, and hiring and firing teachers.

Parental choice in education, which necessitates competition between schools, is a central, required element of a well-functioning, productive education system. Thankfully, many Canadian provinces, including Ontario offer parents choices in their children’s education. More can be done though by learning lessons from both other Canadian provinces as well as internationally.

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