Recent controversy over the provincial government’s provision of rapid tests to independent (private) schools, but not public schools stems from independent schools in Ontario existing in a policy no-man’s-land. If education policy throughout the pandemic has proved anything, it is that the provincial government does not have the framework to make adequate provisions for both public and independent schools, and does a disservice to all by ignoring their different realities.
Independent schools that accessed government funding available for businesses to support their employees with rapid tests are now having that funding cut off, due to the provincial government’s sensitivity around the perception that public funds are going to independent schools but not to public ones.
In truth, the situation is much more complex. Ontario denied independent schools the federal funding made available to support personal protective equipment (PPE) for all students and staff; throughout the pandemic, independent schools have had to fund their own PPE. Now, independent schools that legitimately accessed funds as businesses are being penalized mainly because our collective understanding of this school sector is anemic, and consists largely of concepts of a rich bourgeoisie exercising its social capital to gain access to the best resources at top-tier schools.
Sure, there are wealthy families that expect the best in safety measures at the schools they’ve paid dearly to have their children attend. But there are more than 1,500 independent schools in Ontario, and very few of them are top-tier schools with hefty tuition price tags. The vast majority of independent schools in Ontario are small, community-oriented schools that serve specific, sometimes marginalized populations, often of students whose diverse needs are not met within a behemoth public system weighed down by bureaucracy and sheer size.
There are micro schools, nature schools, Montessori schools and Reggio-Emilia schools. There are Sikh and Khalsa schools, Islamic schools, Christian schools, and Jewish schools. There are classical schools, arts, sports, and STEM schools, and schools that serve French, Russian, Chinese, Greek or other cultural communities, and provide alternative language learning. There are alternative high school credit options, schools that serve international students and new Canadians, and schools that serve students with learning or behavioural exceptionalities, mental health challenges, and neurodivergent learning styles.
Should parents who have chosen an alternate education pathway for their autistic child, for whom funding has already been significantly overhauled by the provincial government, have been excluded from the support for PPE that was made available to public schools? Should students whose parents already make financial sacrifices to have them educated within a community of shared religious values or cultural identity be considered less worthy of the funding promised for the safety of all students in Ontario?
When can we have the conversation that a province as diverse as Ontario will never have a single public school system that is able to adequately meet the broad needs of all of its families? The prevailing narrative that independent schools are for the rich and elite and serve only to further stratify and divide Ontario’s population, is weak, short-sighted, and ignorant of the truth. Independent schools offer a public service by educating in specific, meaningful ways a diversity of students toward public contribution and responsible citizenship.
The current no-man’s-land in which these diverse schools exist has led only to confusion. Ontario needs a better policy framework to include independent schools within its landscape. Then the province needs to recognize that these small community-oriented schools offer an alternate, flexible learning pathway for many of its diverse families. Finally, it should begin to build a shared conversation in which public and independent schools can learn from one another in service to a common goal of excellent education for each of Ontario’s children.
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