Parents should have greater school choice in Ontario

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Appeared in the London Free Press, November 21, 2015

With teacher contracts ratified in Ontario, attention can be turned from what teachers want to what parents want. And it’s increasingly clear that parents want choice.

When parents choose anything other than their neighbourhood public school they are engaging in school choice. Catholic, Francophone, and French immersion, to name a few, are all public schools of choice, and more than one-third of Ontario’s public school students are enrolled in them. Our failure to recognize this as school choice disguises the extent of the desire of Ontario parents for options in education and limits our courage to further improve access to choice.

In 2012/13, as a recent report showed, 26.5 per cent of Ontario students were enrolled in fully-funded, Roman Catholic English schools (and another 3.3 per cent attended Roman Catholic Francophone schools). Another 1.2 per cent were enrolled in Francophone public schools. In addition, 6 per cent of Ontario students are enrolled in independent schools or homeschools—choices that exist outside of the public education system. Put differently, in the last year for which we have ministry data, only 63.1 per cent of students in Ontario were enrolled in English public schools.

But this still doesn’t tell the whole story of school choice. A recent Fraser Institute study showed that within English public boards in Ontario, many more schools and programs of choice exist. French immersion programs enrol some 170,000 Ontario students (more than 8 per cent of all public school enrolments) with demand exceeding capacity in many areas, forcing boards to institute wait lists or lotteries.

Furthermore, alternative schools within the boards also provide a less well-known form of school choice in Ontario including specialist arts and sports schools, single-gender schools, schools featuring more progressive or traditional approaches to the curriculum, and other themes and foci.

Taken together, it might not be a stretch to claim that almost one-half of Ontario students attend schools of choice.

Yet the view that school choice is hostile to public education was showcased in both the 2003 and 2007 Ontario elections. It is also perpetuated by the current government in its declared commitment to a single system of state schooling as implicit in the 2015 Throne Speech.

There is nothing inherently threatening to the goals of public education in either the idea of school choice or the various ways it has been implemented in many educational jurisdictions. It’s an integral feature of modern public education systems around the world. From Sweden, England and Belgium to Chile, New Zealand and Portugal; from Florida to British Columbia, different forms of publicly financed school choice extend educational opportunities, improve achievement, increase parental satisfaction, and enrich society.

Rather than benefiting the rich or privileged, as is so often the claim, programs and schools of choice offer alternate ways of achieving the goals of public education. Attempts to paint school choice as an inherent threat to public education disguises both the current reality of education in Ontario and the promise of a more diverse public system.

And yet, school choice, although exercised by many, is not available to all. Only those families that are Catholic, Francophone, residents of certain school districts, or able to carry the full cost of independent schooling have access to school choice in Ontario. Real opportunity for choice must be extended to all Ontario families and students. Teachers have had their say. Now it’s time to listen to parents.