Ontario should look to B.C. as a model for education reform

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Appeared in the North Bay Nugget, August 11, 2018
Ontario should look to B.C. as a model for education reform

Recently, professors from Western University renewed calls for the Ontario government to change the way K-12 education is delivered in the province.

The majority of Ontarians live in areas served by four distinct public school boards—English public, English Catholic, French public and French Catholic. If you live in Penetanguishene on the Georgian Bay, there’s a fifth school board that operates the province’s only Protestant system.

The professors argue that multiple, competing public school boards are an inefficient use of taxpayer dollars and that separate school boards should be abolished in favour of a single public system. It’s true that spending on education continues to rise—per-student inflation-adjusted spending increased 23.4 per cent over the last decade—but there’s an option for reform that would allow Ontario to move away from publicly-funded religious schools while still supporting families who prefer religious education for their children.

Ontario is one of only three provinces in Canada (Alberta and Saskatchewan being the other two) that fully funds religious schools via separate school boards. However, Alberta and Saskatchewan also provide partial government funding to independent schools of all religions, helping to keep tuition fees within reach for lower- and middle-income families. Ontario provides no such funding for independent schools, so it’s the only province outside Atlantic Canada to not support independent schools families.

The combination of these two factors also means Ontario is the only province that fully funds the religious education of children attending separate schools—primarily Catholics with a small handful of Protestants—while giving zero financial support to families choosing independent schools of other religions (or no religions).

Fortunately, another province (British Columbia) provides an example of an education system that treats families of all religions equally. B.C.’s public school system is fully secular, with Catholic and other religious schools available to families as independent schools. Taxpayer funding is available to qualifying independent schools as an annual grant of either 35 per cent or 50 per cent of the per-student operating funding provided to public schools. This financial support helps keep tuition fees accessible for more families.

Due in part to taxpayer support, and the wide range of independent schools available, B.C. leads the country in independent school enrolment. In 2014-15 (the latest year of comparable data) 12.9 per cent of B.C. students attended an independent school compared to 6.1 per cent in Ontario.

Evidence from B.C. also disproves a persistent stereotype that independent schools are all elite university-preparatory schools that cater only to wealthy families. But in reality, only 8.2 per cent of B.C. independent schools fit this description. The remaining independent schools offer a diverse range of religious and pedagogical approaches and serve a wide variety of families. A recent study found the after-tax family income of student’s in B.C. non-elite independent schools was virtually the same as students in public schools.

Clearly, there are lessons to be learned from the B.C. experience. Reforming Ontario’s education system, by removing religious schools from the public system while introducing partial funding for independent schools, will offer greater choice to parents and save money at a time when the new Ford government must get spending under control. A 2014 study found that if Ontario moves to B.C.’s model of a single public system with partial funding to independent schools, Ontario taxpayers would save between $849.1 million and $1.9 billion annually.

The time has come for Ontario to seriously consider significant reforms in K-12 education. B.C. stands out as an active example of a system that works for both families and taxpayers. Ontario policymakers would be wise to follow B.C.’s lead.

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