Right idea, wrong messenger, for education reform in Ontario

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Appeared in the Hamilton Spectator, March 7, 2017

The long drought of policy attention for independent schools and homeschools in Ontario is over.

Andrew Scheer, a candidate for the federal Conservative leadership, recently announced a policy proposal that would see independent school parents receive an annual tax deduction of up to $4,000 per child attending an independent school. Homeschool parents would have access to a $1,000 per student tax credit. While Scheer’s to be lauded for bringing an end to a decade of silence on the education choice policy front in Ontario, he’s the wrong person to be making this proposal. More on that in a moment.

Make no mistake—this policy, that would apply all across Canada, is a big deal, and especially so for the parents of about 117,000 students (2013/14 data) in Ontario who attend independent schools. Contrary to public perception, independent schools aren’t the sole domain of the wealthy. A recent Fraser Institute analysis found that more than four of every five independent school students in Ontario did not attend a stereotypically elite private school either. Instead almost half (47.8 per cent) attended religiously-oriented schools.

Indeed, parents who want a religious education for their children in Ontario but do not want to attend or are barred from public Roman Catholic schools have no choice but to send their child to an independent school.

Moreover, beyond religion, a quarter of all independent school students in the province attend schools focusing on arts, sports or science, or Montessori or Waldorf schools—options simply not found in public schools.

Remarkably, unlike all four western provinces and Quebec, Ontario offers no funding for independent schools. Parents essentially carry the full cost. Given that average per pupil spending in Ontario public schools was $12,753 in 2013/14, that’s an enormous amount for parents to begin to make up.

Clearly any policy that would recognize the tuition expenses of families shouldering the full burden of their kids’ education is long overdue.

Unfortunately, while it’s heartening that someone is finally paying attention to the increasing share of students in Ontario whose parents choose a non-government form of education for their children, it’s a huge concern that this proposal comes from a federal candidate.

Since Confederation, education in Canada has been under the exclusive jurisdiction of the provinces. Each province has the freedom and responsibility to design and deliver education that best responds to local circumstances, aims, needs and constraints. No matter how praiseworthy the details of a policy that will correct longstanding flaws, if that policy proposal violates the federalist structure under which education is delivered, it simply cannot be supported.

On the bright side, Andrew Scheer's proposal offers a welcomed opportunity to discuss the benefits of independent schools, particularly in a province such as Ontario where there has been a dearth of discussion—let alone action—on this pressing issue.

But as quickly as he has made this announcement, Sheer should walk away from it. Instead, courageous policy shapers at the provincial level—again, particularly in Ontario—should emulate Scheer's creativity and pick up the discussion on his policy proposal. Despite crucial deficiencies in Ontario education, a strong federalist approach to education delivery in Canada must be maintained.

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