When Ontario public schools aren’t public enough

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Appeared in the Hamilton Spectator, December 15, 2016

Ontario’s courts have declared that some students, due to their parents’ religious preferences, are likely better served outside the public school systems. This is a dramatic development in Ontario education.

The recent Ontario Superior Court judgment in Hamilton confirmed what a lot of parents in Ontario already know—their individual religious beliefs are incompatible with a secular public school system. The case involves a parent denied religious accommodation for his child, meaning the parent would not be given adequate warning so the child could leave the classroom when subject matter, questionable to the family’s faith, comes up.

The judgment essentially claims that the Education Act and the school board’s policies can “operate to preclude” a child from participating in the public education system. Helpfully it goes on to recommend that “independent schools, whether faith-based or otherwise, may be available as is, of course, the option of homeschooling.”

In other words—if you’re a parent in Ontario with religious beliefs, and you want those beliefs respected, you may need to look beyond the public school systems. 

If parents take this advice, they certainly won’t be alone. Increasing numbers of families are looking past the public school systems for their children’s education. The Toronto Sun recently reported that “according to numbers obtained from the ministry of education, 127 new private schools have opened since 2015—many of them private Christian, Islamic and other faith schools”.  

In fact, the ministry’s website shows a total of 1,215 independent schools as of November 2016, which is a 27.4 per cent increase over the 954 independent schools in operation in the 2013/14 school year (the year for which an intensive examination of all independent schools in Canada was completed).

Further, consider that since 2000/01 enrolments in Ontario independent schools increased by 9.4 per cent (as of 2012/13).

Clearly, parents in Ontario are increasingly opting for independent schools, and yet the phenomenal growth of independent school numbers over the last three years indicates something even more dramatic. Each new school represents motivated parents and community members coming together and collaborating to serve the needs of their families and children, something that public schools evidently fail to do.

Remember, Ontario is the only non-Atlantic province that doesn’t financially support independent schools. Unlike in Quebec and western Canada, where most independent schools receive a minimum of 50 per cent of the public school per-student allocation for operating expenses, Ontario offers no funding. Consequently, choosing independent schools in Ontario comes at a large financial cost to parents.

Moreover, if parents opt for homeschooling in Ontario, they’d also join a growing, although smaller, schooling sector. The latest data from the ministry shows homeschool registrations in Ontario increased from 3,584 in 2006/07 to 5,680 in 2012/13. And in that option, too, unlike in the three western-most provinces, no funding is available for parents.

There’s no doubt that the delivery of education in Ontario must change.

The courts have acted. Parents are acting. The only immobile actor is the Ontario government. Policy solutions abound in Quebec and western Canada. Ontario must face the facts—public schools cannot and do not serve all families and students.

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