Fraser Forum

Better late than never for school choice in Ontario

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This year marks the 30th anniversary of the report from the Commission on Private Schools in Ontario. So it’s a good time to crack open the several hundred pages and consider several proposals that, for a variety of reasons, were ignored but may still have application today.

The commission was established in June 1984 when Premier William Davis decided to fund Ontario’s Roman Catholic high schools and he needed to decide what could be done about the rest of the private schools in the province. Certainly his decisions continue to reverberate throughout the policy fabric of Ontario. (Two of the three new high schools that opened their doors in Ontario this fall were Catholic.)

Before the Davis announcement, Grades 11-13 in Catholic high schools operated as private schools. Davis acknowledged his decision raised legitimate questions about the place of other private schools and appointed noted academic Bernard Shapiro to head the commission.

At root, Shapiro’s task was to decide whether the remaining 60,000 students then attending private schools should also receive public support of some kind. He said yes, but the cumbersome conditions he recommended were unattractive and the government, overwhelmed by the flak generated by the Davis decision, punted.

The underlying issues, of course, persisted.

Failure to address them has allowed Ontario to fall behind in the move to greater school choice that has transformed education in the western provinces, across the USA, and most OECD countries. A recent Fraser Institute study revisits three of Shapiro’s more than 50 recommendations, and looks at how alternative schools and programs can increase choices within public school systems. Belated adoption of these recommendations would increase school choice in Ontario, while leaving scope for broader reforms in the future.

Shapiro found that school boards had the authority to establish alternative schools and noted with approval the relatively wide range of such schools then available in the Toronto School Board. To encourage more schools of this kind, he recommended boards be granted the power to establish alternative schools. This did not happen. Even so, the new Toronto District School Board continued in the footsteps of its predecessor, as demonstrated by the list of more than 40 alternative schools on its website. Other boards, particularly Toronto Catholic, also offer a wide range of alternative schools.

Moreover, Shapiro considered how making schools more autonomous could increase school diversity. The subsequent re-centralization of public schooling in Ontario has moved the province in the opposite direction. Still, the crucial relationship is not that between the Ministry of Education and boards, but between boards and their schools, specifically the extent to which board policy and administrative philosophy distributes leadership to and within its schools. Some Ontario boards have moved in this direction. Others could follow.

Most parents send their children to the neighbourhood school designated by their local school board. The key to enriched public school choice is to eliminate or greatly relax school assignment by postal code with school selection by choice. Adoption of this type of open enrolment policy was also among Shapiro’s ignored recommendations.

Other provinces, though, have adopted open enrolment legislation as key engines of their school choice policies, providing models for Ontario to follow when it belatedly chooses to follow suit.

Certainly, Shapiro’s report contains many more gems. Attention to even a few of them is long overdue.


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