How Ontario can truly improve its delivery of education

The ongoing labour dispute within Ontario’s public education sector gives one pause. It also gives one an opportunity to reflect, again, on whether the current educational funding system is the one that serves all Ontarians best. Indeed, does it even serve the public education system best?

There is considerable evidence to suggest that the government of Ontario would better serve all Ontarians and indeed better serve the public education system in terms of both spending efficiency and more important, the improved educational results, if it made some public funding available to independent schools.

Last month, an article appeared in Calgary’s Business, entitled “Quebec and B.C. spend less on education than other provinces—while outperforming most provinces” written by Tegin Hill and Ben Eisen, an economist and Senior Fellow, respectively at the Fraser Institute.

One of the great advantages of Canada’s federation—composed of federal, provincial and local powers—is that subnational governments can experiment with different ways of providing public services, and adopt the best system based on those experiments. In the case of public education (a provincial responsibility) other provinces can look to Quebec and British Columbia to learn about successful models of spending and delivery.

The authors reviewed education spending across the provinces and arrived at the conclusion that “despite lower levels of spending, students in Quebec and B.C. outperform students in many higher-spending provinces.”

They found that the level of per-student K-12 spending varied significantly by province. Adjusted for inflation and enrolment changes for 2016-17, Quebec ($11,543) and B.C. ($11,879), spent the lowest annual amounts per student. Saskatchewan ($15,423) and New Brunswick ($14,768) spent the highest. Ontario spent $13,894 annually per student.

The authors noted that “according to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores, the gold standard of international testing, students in Quebec and B.C. outperformed students in Saskatchewan and New Brunswick in all three PISA test subjects—math, science and reading. In fact, Quebec and B.C. have consistently led in student performance in Canada.

In a separate Fraser Institute study, referenced in an article published in the Toronto Sun on December 17, 2019, (“Ontario spends more on education while student test scores decline”) on December 17, 2019, researchers noted that “over the last decade Ontario’s PISA scores, show a decline in reading, science and mathematics.”

Hill and Eisen asked the obvious question. Why are the educational results better in the two provinces that spend the least per student annually than in the provinces that some so much more?

“One possible explanation”, they answered, “may relate to the very different approaches among provinces on how to deliver K-12 education.”

They elaborated. The elaborations are the reason we reproduce the article.

“Quebec and B.C. have fairly simple public education systems, relying on independent schools to provide the bulk of educational choice including religious-based education, alternative educational approaches, and content-focused programs such as STEM. In contrast, other provinces (including the highest-spender, Saskatchewan) offer religious education and other programs within their public schools. And these provinces tend to have a more complex public school system (Saskatchewan has three competing school systems, for example).

“In B.C. and Quebec, approximately one in eight students attend independent schools, the highest proportion of all provinces, compared to less than one in 100 students in New Brunswick (the lowest rate of all provinces).

“In Quebec and B.C. the government provides financial support to eligible independent schools. In the Atlantic provinces and Ontario, the government provides no financial support for students attending independent schools.

“As a result, Quebec and B.C. rely much less on the public school system to provide choice to students than do other provinces. Clearly, providing greater educational diversity through independent schools helps these provinces achieve better student performance—at a lower cost. (Our emphasis)

“Provinces should take advantage of one of federalism’s great benefits—the fact that it allows subnational (in our case, the provincial) jurisdictions to experiment and innovate with different policy models to find out what works and what doesn’t. The combination of strong student outcomes and relatively low costs to government (and taxpayers) in Quebec and B.C. suggests other provinces could learn from their approach. The evidence suggests many provinces could spend less—and improve student performance—through education reform.”

The point must be made again and again.

The evidence shows that bringing independent schools – to some extent – under the public funding umbrella, actually enhances the public good. Public monies are spent more efficiently. Educational results are improved. More families can choose the educational formats that better suit their precise needs. Moreover, by allowing wider choice while enhancing the overall educational outputs within the province, the multicultural fabric of our society is also enhanced. The argument is entirely false that extending some funding to independent schools harms our society. Indeed, the very opposite is true. It provides our society more ways to shine.

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Shabbat shalom.

GAJE

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