Improving independent school regulation could improve choice for parents
The costly government-regulated and government-run school systems inherited from the previous century appear unable to adequately serve modern expectations, prompting many to seek new principles to guide the development of better schools.
Three promising emergent principles are choice, independence and accountability.
Choice is about people having freedom to find and support schools they trust. Independence is about giving education professionals freedom to create schools that appeal to and respond to parents, children and communities. Accountability is about making sure schools are held responsible for meeting or exceeding properly established expectations.
The increasing relevance of these principles is illustrated by the slow but steady move of students from government to independent schools in recent years. From 2001 to 2015, enrolment in Canada’s independent schools increased 23 per cent while the total number of school-aged children declined by 6.6 per cent.
How well do Canada’s independent schools embody the emergent principles of choice, independence and accountably? A new Fraser Institute study comparing how provinces regulate their independent schools helps answer this question.
One of the greatest impediments to choice is cost. Few families choosing independent schools are able to do so effortlessly. The ability to afford the tuition and other fees that must be met to send children to independent schools have caused many parents to comment on the sacrifices involved in making this choice.
Only five provinces offer financial support to independent schools with rates varying across provinces and between school classifications within provinces. The support ranges from 80 per cent of public school grants for Saskatchewan’s associate schools to 35 per cent for “group 2” independent schools in British Columbia.
The level of independence of independent schools is affected by different provincial rules controlling their establishment and operation. All funded independent schools in B.C. and the Prairie provinces, for example, are required to satisfy specific program and operational requirements, which include hiring provincially certified teachers and using provincial curriculum.
Quebec goes further. It requires all independent schools to obtain ministerial permits following a detailed review of an advisory committee and to obtain additional accreditation from this committee to qualify for funding.
Ontario, in contrast, is very different. It simply requires submission of a properly filed and verified notification of intention to operate. Beyond that, Ontario elementary independent schools are free to hire the teachers of their choice and use the curriculum of their preference.
With regard to accountability, all independent schools receiving government funding are required to participate in provincial assessment programs. Not so for non-funded independent schools in most provinces. Only Quebec requires testing participation for all its non-funded schools, although Ontario independent schools offering provincial high school credits must participate in the Grade 10 literacy test. And all independent schools using the provincial curriculum in Newfoundland and Labrador (none of which are funded) must also participate in provincial assessments.
Thus, independent school accountability does not just occur through standardized testing. Much responsibility for the accountability of the schools is left to the schools’ governing directors and the parents who choose the independent schools.
Independent schools in all provinces must also file official reports and, once again, the coverage and level of detail varies by province and funding status. Alberta requires independent schools receiving the highest level of financial support to participate in the provincial accountability program applying to public schools. This includes public reporting, a commendable level of transparency very much in tune with emergent expectations and, as such, a desirable requirement for schools across the country—independent and public.
Overall, provincial regulations for independent schools across Canada vary widely. Still, funding tends to be accompanied by more hiring and operational restrictions and so it’s fair to ask whether this limits the true independence of Canada’s independent schools and ultimately restrains diversity in the sector. It’s worth remembering that independent schools are ultimately accountable to parents in far more exacting ways than government schools can ever be. Because all independent schools rely to some extent on fees charged to clients, they are ultimately accountable in far more consequential ways than fully-funded government schools.