Skip to main content

Michael Van Pelt is the president of Cardus, a think tank dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture, and Beth Green is the organization's director of education.

When the Supreme Court of Canada ruled favourably for a Quebec Catholic high school last spring, it famously said that secular governments must foster diversity, not extinguish it.

The Court's wisdom must surely extend beyond explicitly religious schooling and encompass the broadest reasonable range of educational diversity. As a matter of practice, that wisdom already does apply in provinces across Canada.

Alberta, for example, effectively has nine options for schooling: First Nations, Métis and Inuit, distance learning, francophone schooling, alternative programs, charter schools, Hutterite colony schools, private schooling, public and separate systems. British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and even Quebec have rich and emerging stories to share about expanding educational diversity.

Ontario alone refuses to even consider the level of schooling diversity that's now standard fare in other provinces. It's a curiosity – some might say a missed golden opportunity – given that Ontario was in the forefront of that movement 30 years ago with the Shapiro Commission that recommended diversity within both the public and independent school sectors be encouraged.

Sadly, Premier Kathleen Wynne insists there is no need to even engage such conversation. Ms. Wynne has even declared that it is the duty of all elected officials to encourage parents to enroll their children exclusively in the government education system. Ontario's Premier is a proponent of the opportunities created by diversity in public life, yet she cannot grasp the benefits of multiple approaches to education.

In early November leading thinkers on education diversity from across Canada are gathering to seek to redress that by revisiting the main thrusts of the Shapiro report. They'll tackle the persistent mythology that underpins Ontario's insistence on extinguishing school diversity.

A central myth is the assertion, commonly repeated in discussions around independent schooling, that any degree of government funding for them would impose an inequitable burden on taxpayers whose children attend government school. It would, the argument goes, effectively ask all taxpayers to subsidize the elite private education of their neighbours' children.

The reality is the opposite. The experience of Manitoba, for example, shows that if the 14,000 students enrolled in that province's independent schools were added to the public school population, it would result in an $84-million increase in operating expenses for the provincial government each year. And that's not counting the cost of added classroom space and teachers for the new students. Independent schools actually reduce the pressure on the government system. Put another way, the government system is a net beneficiary of partnering with independent schools to keep tuition manageable and their doors open.

Such a partnership will be increasingly important in coming years as government school populations decline while costs increase. A 2015 study by the Fraser Institute showed that while aggregate spending for government schools across Canada increased by $13.8-billion between 2003-04 and 2012-13, total enrolment in government schools actually declined by 4.9 per cent during that period. Spending ever more on ever fewer children is hardly a sustainable environment.

A warmer climate for partnership with independent schools, by contrast, makes sense by letting parents choose the school that best fits their family's needs. It also opens up possibilities for collaborative resource sharing, as in Saskatchewan where government and independent schools have held joint tournaments, sponsored joint professional development conferences and even shared school space.

Collaboration of this kind materially debunks the myth that independent schools are either vectors of elitist attitudes for the very rich or preserves of isolation for social nonconformity. In fact, as our research proves, one of the most powerful outcomes of independent schools across Canada is the level of life-long citizen engagement by their graduates.

Empirically, independent school students emerge into society educated to foster diversity not only of religious belief, as the Supreme Court has emphasized is necessary for a secular state, but for ways of living that can only make Canada a richer, warmer place for all to live.