Shutting down schools hurts small towns, but it doesn’t have to be that way

NationalPost.com – FP Comment
December 19, 2016.   Deani Van Pelt

Due to a misguided education-funding model that depends on high enrollment levels, and therefore favours urban schools, dozens of communities in rural and small-town Ontario may lose their public schools. Contrary to the rhetoric, this doesn’t need to happen.

Schools can be vital centres of activity, particularly for smaller and rural communities. When school buildings are shuttered, non-urban areas become less attractive to families and businesses. Simply put, school closures can hurt communities.

Unfortunately, so far the only solution to school closures involves loud calls for more government funding. And more broadly, we’re all being asked to believe that small schools can no longer exist in rural or small-population centres.

But again, that’s not the case. For proof, we need only to look at Ontario’s 954 independent schools.

We should look beyond Ontario’s existing public school funding model for solutions.
Independent schools, which operate outside of the public systems, have a strong presence in rural areas and small towns. A quarter of all of Ontario’s independent schools are located in rural areas and three of every 10 are in places with fewer than 30,000 residents.

Perhaps even more disconcerting in the school-closure discussion is the widespread notion that schools must be large to keep their doors open. Not true. Almost half of Ontario’s independent schools (49.3 per cent) have fewer than 50 students and an additional 28.7 per cent has between 50 and 149 students.

If more than three of every four independent schools in Ontario can exist with fewer than 150 students, small schools must be viable. We should reject calls for shuttering small schools and shipping students out.

Instead we should look beyond Ontario’s existing public school funding model for solutions. Alberta and British Columbia provide two models worth consideration.

In B.C., one-third of independent schools are located in rural or small population areas and more than half (54.5 per cent) are small, with fewer than 150 students. B.C. independent schools are privately run but receive, for each student, up to 50 per cent of the per student operating grant allotted for local public schools. They raise additional funds through tuitions and other donations. That’s a lesson for Ontario, where small Ontario schools facing closure could become independent non-profits and receive partial government funding, as they do in B.C.

Or consider Alberta’s charter schools, which are public schools but operate independent of the local school district. They basically receive the same funding (100 per cent, on a per student basis) granted to local public schools for operating expenses. They cannot charge tuition (although they may raise capital funds). Ontario could consider adopting a similar policy and transform smaller rural public schools into charter schools, and directly provide some portion of the average $12,753 (in 2013/14) amount spent per student in public schools . As charter schools, they would be free to raise additional capital funds and organize the education program around their mission and goals.

We shouldn’t buy the misleading claim that small schools in rural and small communities are no longer viable. By learning from independent schools in Ontario, and considering funding models in B.C. and Alberta, we can reform how Ontario education dollars are spent without spending more taxpayer money, and keep small schools open.

Deani Van Pelt is director of the Barbara Mitchell Centre for Improvement in Education at the Fraser Institute.

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