A new report is urging Ontario lawmakers to institute policies that promote school choice. Toward a Warmer Climate for Ontario’s Private Schools, written by emeritus professor Derek J. Allison from University of Western Ontario for Cardus, a think tank dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture, is calling for a  discussion around greater government support for private schools that has not taken place since the Shapiro commission.

The Shapiro commission was appointed during the government of Premier William Davis after he announced public funding for the province’s Roman Catholic schools in 1984. Its report, Report of the Commission on Private Schools in Ontario, stimulated discussion at the time around its plan for private schools to negotiate agreements that would permit them to share public board services and provincial funding. The recommendations in Commissioner Bernard Shapiro’s report were never adopted.

“Rather than being viewed and treated as contributing partners in Ontario’s education project, the province’s non-public schools and their supporters seem to be barely tolerated by the educational establishment and influential opinion leaders,” states Allison in his report. Some signs of the “chilly climate” include increases in inspection fees for private schools that want to offer high school credits and requiring that an identifying “P” be added to course credits on transcripts of students at public high schools who completed the course at a private school.

The report recommends that the government take steps in order to create more supportive policy towards private schools by drawing on recommendations in the three-decade old Shapiro report. In his argument, Allison uses a brief presented by Dalton McGuinty, Sr. (the father of the recent Ontario premier) to the commission. McGuinty stated that private school students made up a significant proportion of the population, were not of simply one class or belief system, and effectively carried out their role of educating.

Allison estimates that there may currently be 125,000 elementary and secondary students enrolled in non-public schools – that is independent or private schools – outnumbering all of the students at Ontario’s fully funded Francophone boards. Independent schools are not for society’s economic elite; according to Statistics Canada, 21 per cent of private school students have families that make less than $50,000 per year.

According to Cardus’ report, while private schools are “inherently diverse and competitive,” public schools “typically allow parents to have less meaningful choice and ultimately operate as state agents, making them vulnerable to capture by political ideologies and special interests.” In any case, it is the job of society, Allison argues, to ensure that both private and public schools function according to a set of educational and social standards.

Making use of Shapiro’s recommendations, Allison advocates that a set of minimum standards should be explicitly defined for all Ontario schools and that the Ministry of Education devote more resources to overseeing the operation of private schools. Some fees paid by private schools (including charges for every student taking a standardized provincial test) should also be eliminated. As well, government ought to provide limited funds towards transportation and instructional materials for private school students.

Private school funding was recently raised to the forefront of public awareness in 2007 when Ontario Progressive Conservative leader John Tory proposed extending funding to all faith-based schools, but ultimately lost the election. In an email to The Interim, Allison acknowledged that Tory’s failed campaign makes supporting the extension of public funding to private religious schools difficult. Nevertheless, “choice in education is emerging as a central human rights issue which will ensure it remains a subject from which politicians cannot easily run and hide.”

Private schools often outperform public schools in terms of benefits to students and society, as “they exist to serve the needs and interests of their parents and students. If they don’t do this consistently they go out of business.”

“Whether the Ontario government chooses to actively regulate private schools or to essentially ignore them – as it has, in effect, done for the past century – it remains responsible for them, for how they operate and benefit or diminish society,” said Allison. Creating a set of standards would help the government crackdown against diploma mills and scam education facilities. “These standards would obviously need to conform to Charter guarantees, and thus could be confidently expected to protect religious freedoms, unless the government sought to invoke the notwithstanding clause, of course.”

“Debate over this and related concerns would crystallize many of the issues underlying the whole question of public support for non-state schools, which I submit is well overdue,” said Allison.