Fraser Forum

All families should have access to independent schools during COVID and beyond

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All families should have access to independent schools during COVID and beyond

After nearly two years of school closures, distance learning and other measures, independent schools, which are more responsive to parents, may now look more and more attractive. Especially as many parents have now learned through experience that homeschooling is harder and more demanding than perhaps previously imagined. And because government-run schools remain vulnerable to disruptive actions by teacher unions under the name of public health.

The government-mandated rules on COVID mitigation measures, such as social distancing and mask-wearing, seem to change daily, which raises questions about the respect governments have for the independence of independent schools. But the treatment of such measures may be the decisive factor for many parents choosing a future school for their children.

Still, I can hear you screaming—I can’t afford it!

Sure, the really expensive independent schools are beyond the reach of most Canadians. And if you can afford one, you and your kids are probably already enjoying teachers and school leaders who really know your child and how he or she is doing, who keep you well-informed about his or her progress, and always answer the phone.

But in Ontario, for example, there are only a few of these really expensive independent schools among the 1,500 or so in the province. Many of the others are more reasonably priced especially religious schools, which are about half of all independent schools in Ontario.

The Ontario government provides a downloadable list of the province’s independent schools, complete with addresses and phone numbers, but there’s no comprehensive list of tuition costs. Various easily found websites give costs for selected (although typically more expensive) schools. With many of those charging fees around $12,000 and up, most will likely experience sticker shock at first glance. But again, notice that many schools offer family and other discounts. If you contact an independent school and ask about the options, you may be surprised.

Even so, it will be expensive. And no matter what they do, some families still can’t afford it. But many families free up money in many ways (research has shown that independent school families exist across the income spectrum). Some postpone vacations. Many drive older cars, defer home improvements, sell or remortgage the cottage, find extra paid work, shave other costs. Grandparents are often eager to help when they can. As with all things, it really depends on how much you want the benefits available. If a child is not doing well in his or her school, and the principal and teachers seem unable to help much, some belt-tightening will seem bearable.

More fundamentally, why should anyone, especially lower-income families, have to pay the full cost of an independent school (which is in essence simply an alternative to the government option) out of their own pocket? Why must children of all but wealthier families be denied meaningful school choice? Is it fair that families who already pay for their kids' schooling through their tax dollars also must scrimp and save to send their kid to the school that best fits their children’s needs?

Independent schools can provide as good an education as government-run schools, even better. If education taxes are meant to pay for educating our young, why can’t that education take place in an independently run school? Government has an obligation to ensure all children are educated, but this does not mean government must run every school it funds.

Parents shouldn’t have to struggle to educate their children in a school of their choice. Other taxpayers, even staunch public-school supporters, surely support every child’s right to a good education. If parents believe independent schools are the best fit, why should their lack of wealth prevent them from making this choice? And if our public schools are really as good as claimed, they should welcome serious competition on a more level playing field.

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