Demand for independent schooling on the rise in Canada
Across Canada, more and more parents are choosing independent schools for their children. Increasing demand for options outside of the public school system is an important trend with significant implications for education policy.
First, consider the numbers. Across Canada, between 2000/01 and 2012/13, independent school enrolment increased in every province except P.E.I. and New Brunswick where there was a very slight decline. In many cases, the increases were significant. In British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland, independent school enrolment grew by 24-34 per cent over this short period. What makes these increases all the more remarkable is that they occurred during a 13-year period when Canada’s school-age population shrank significantly. In fact, the total school-age population shrank in every province except Alberta during this timeframe.
With independent school enrolment rising even as the school-age population shrinks, the share of students enrolled in independent schools is growing all across the country. But there’s still significant variation in the share of students enrolled in independent schools across the provinces. The table below shows independent school enrolment trends in each province, and the relation to overall enrolment.
Across Canada, demand for independent education is clearly rising, but this table suggests that the provinces differ in terms of the extent they are helping parents meet this demand.
Public policy plays an important role. For example, in each of the three provinces with the highest rates of independent school enrolment (Quebec, B.C. and Manitoba), independent schools receive some amount of funding from their provincial governments for each student they educate.
In B.C., eligible independent schools receive 35 or 50 per cent of the amount allocated for operations per student in the local school district. In Manitoba, funded independent schools receive 50 per cent of the relevant per pupil allocation, and in Quebec it’s about 60 per cent. This assistance reduces out-of-pocket costs for parents, making independent schooling more accessible to many parents who may not otherwise be able to afford it.
By contrast, the Atlantic provinces and Ontario offer no financial support for parents of children in independent schools. Of course, there are many different factors that influence the rate of independent school enrolment in each province. However, the lack of financial support for independent school parents in these jurisdictions is one reason their independent school enrolment rates are lower than in Quebec, B.C. and Manitoba.
Of course, providing financial support to parents who prefer an independent school for their child can help defray the costs of independent schooling. But this policy approach also has the benefit of creating significant savings for taxpayers. Since the per-student grants to independent schools are significantly less than the per-student allocation for public school districts, taxpayers wind up saving between 40-65 per cent of a per-student operating cost every time a student moves from the public system to an independent school.
It’s time for Ontario and the Atlantic provinces to look at provinces like B.C. and Quebec for alternative approaches to funding education. Not only are these provinces responsive to demand for more choice, they relieve budget pressure on their provincial governments.
In the end, perhaps it’s possible to satisfy both parents and taxpayers. We just need to start paying more attention to what the numbers tell us: parents across Canada want access to a wider range of schooling options, and opening access to these options requires less of the taxpayer.
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