Families in Atlantic Canada face lowest levels of school choice in the country

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Appeared in the Halifax Chronicle Herald, June 17, 2023
Families in Atlantic Canada face lowest levels of school choice in the country

As the schoolyear winds down and students begin their summer vacations, it’s worth reflecting on a few hard truths about education in Atlantic Canada. For example, if you’re a student anywhere in the region, you better hope things work out in your neighbourhood public school—because you don’t have a lot of other options.

The Atlantic provinces have the lowest rates of independent school enrollment in the country— Nova Scotia (3.1 per cent), Prince Edward Island (2.2 per cent), Newfoundland and Labrador (1.6 per cent) and New Brunswick (1.0 per cent)—in sharp contrast to provinces such as British Columbia (13.2 per cent) and Quebec (11.7 per cent). Why? Mainly because, with the exception of Ontario, the Atlantic provinces are the only provinces that do not fund independent schools, which are schools that operate outside the government-run public school system.

Consequently, parents in Atlantic Canada who wish to enroll their children in independent schools must pay the full cost of tuition, along with their regular taxes that pay for the public school system. In essence, they pay twice for their children’s education. This might not be a problem for wealthier families who can easily afford high tuition fees, but it’s not so simple for low-income families.

In addition, unlike Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario, the Atlantic provinces have no separate Roman Catholic school systems for parents who want their children to receive a Catholic education. And while public school boards in some other provinces (most notably Alberta) allow for significant choice and specialization, Atlantic Canadians can expect a cookie-cutter approach to education. Specialty schools in areas such as sports, arts and faith-based education are few and far between. One-size-fits-all is the name of the game.

And currently, every Atlantic province forbids the creation of charter schools. Contrary to what many people assume, charter schools are not independent schools but rather autonomous, not-for-profit schools within the public system. They’re also non-sectarian, cannot charge tuition and must be open to all students. Charter schools have proven to be quite successful in Alberta. Some Alberta charter schools provide a traditional back-to-basics approach while others focus on alternative programs targeting at-risk youth. With the recent decision by the Alberta government to lift the cap on charter schools, the number of these schools—and the number of students enrolled in them—will continue to grow.

There’s another way charter schools could make a difference. In far too many cases, school boards are closing schools in rural communities in Atlantic Canada, often against the wishes of parents. These parents should take note of how parents in the tiny of hamlet of Valhalla Centre in northwest Alberta handled their situation. Fifteen years ago, the Peace Wapiti School Division voted to close the only school in Valhalla Centre. However, instead of resigning themselves to the loss of their school, parents and other community members banded together, purchased the school building from the board, and established Valhalla Community School as an independently operated charter school. That school remains open to this day.

Imagine what parents in Atlantic Canada could do if they had the same opportunity to establish charter schools. They could keep their schools open while simultaneously refashioning them to better reflect the values of the local community. It would be the ultimate win-win situation.

Sadly, Atlantic Canada continues to be a school choice desert. To revitalize education in the region, governments should incorporate more choice within public school boards, pass charter schools legislation or provide partial funding to independent schools. There are plenty of ways provincial governments can expand options for parents.

Next fall, parents in Atlantic Canada will once again face a monolithic government-run school system. But they deserve at least as many choices as parents in other provinces. It’s time to transform this desert into an oasis of choice.