Another article came across our electronic desk over the holidays.

Charting the Rise of School Choice across Canadian Provinces: A Policy Index

  • December 2021
  • Canadian Journal of Political Science
  • DOI: 10.1017/S0008423921000901
  • Salar Asadolahi
  • James Farney
  • Triadafilos Triadafilopoulos
  • Linda A. White

Abstract – This article introduces and discusses the findings of the Canada School Choice Policy Index (CSCPI). This is the first index of its kind that measures the development of school choice policies across the Canadian provinces from 1980 to 2020 using eight unique indicators of choice. In contrast to other countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the CSCPI reveals that although Canada has witnessed an increase in school choice over time, this increase has largely been contained within public education systems rather than in the expansion of private education options. Our findings raise the importance of future research to address growing choice in public education systems across the provinces, in addition to choice in the private sphere.

Like the article that was discussed earlier this week, the authors conducted a policy analysis – in this case in an attempt to validate something called the Canada School Choice Policy Index (CSCPI)  Their findings, which is where the authors quote the 2019 annual report, read:


For the majority of the provinces, the early periods of the 1980s were characterized by a relative absence of regulations that dictated the conditions under which home-education programs could operate. Homeschooling during this period generally took place at a local level and outside of an explicit agreement with provincial governments (French, 1989). Enforcement of compulsory public education and truancy laws also varied by jurisdiction. In Alberta, for instance, parents who enrolled their children in education programs without governmental approval were potentially subject to significant penalties, which could include imprisonment (Strauss, 1981). It was not until the end of the decade and into the 1990s that all of the provinces had officially acknowledged and established legislation governing the operation of home-education programs. Since then, there has been relative stability across the provinces in the degree of choice offered to parents who homeschool their children. No province offers substantial funding opportunities to parents who wish to enrol their children in home-education programs, though British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan do provide some limited financial assistance. Although no province permits students enrolled in home-education programs to obtain certified high school diplomas upon completion of their programs, all provinces offer some means of allowing homeschooled students to fulfill the public education systems graduation requirements. These include but are not limited to allowing pupils to enrol in distance-education courses, to take provincial exams, and/or adopt the public school curriculum for use in their home-education programs. The same period has also seen a growth in distance-education options within the public system, through which students study the regular curriculum at home but with public school teachers providing instruction (often in a technologically mediated way) (Barbour and LaBonte, 2019).

Independent school

Although independent schools have operated in all provinces over the past four decades, the extent to which they have been regulated and funded by provincial governments has generally increased over time. Alberta has remained most consistent in its efforts to support multiple forms of choice via independent schools and provides high levels of funding to its independent schools (Harrison and Kachur, 1999). Today, Saskatchewans Associate Independent Schools are the most generously funded independent schools in the country, receiving 80 per cent of the funds given to public schools in the province (Van Pelt et al., 2017). British Columbia has established an extensive system of regulations for each of its four categories of independent schools and provides partial funding to a subset of these schools (schools designated as Group 1 and Group 2 schools). Ontario has maintained low levels of regulations for independent schools, enabling autonomy, but does not provide any funding to such schools. The province of Quebec currently provides substantial funding to certain independent schools, though not as much as it did in the 1980s when such funding could be as high as 85 per cent (Bayefsky and Waldman, 2007). It has also developed a highly regulated independent school system since the 1980s. Prior to 1997, the Newfoundland and Labrador school system was, in one sense, entirely composed of independent schools, as the province had no public system and, instead, depended on seven networks of church schools to delivery K12 education throughout the province. Since the amalgamation of these schools into a single public system in 1997, there have only been a handful of independent schools in the province that do not receive any government support. The provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have consistently maintained similarly light levels of regulation and have not provided funding to independent schools throughout the period reviewed here.

State-delivered religious education

Currently, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario are the only provinces that have separate Catholic school boards that are fully funded and operated by the respective provincial governments in each case. In each of these provinces, there is a single Protestant board covering only a small area, meaning that the separate system is de facto a Roman Catholic one. Since 1998, Quebec has replaced its denominational public education system with a linguistic system divided between French- and English-language schools (Freeland, 1999). Since 2008, religious instruction has existed in the public school system, taught from a neutral social scientificperspective (Farney, 2017). Similarly, prior to the 1990s, Newfoundland and Labrador had a multidenominational school system that was replaced with a linguistically based public education system in 1997. Religious courses have been offered in the provincial public education system since then. British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have not developed publicly funded separate religious education programs and/or school boards during the period of time studied in the index. Rather, religious education programs in these provinces must operate through independent schools. Though an important topic, the index does not capture local or episodic accommodation of religious practice, such as rooms being set aside for Friday prayer for Muslims or public schools continuing to use the Lords prayer during the school day in areas with large Evangelical Christian populations.

State-delivered minority language education

The development of minority language education and the establishment of public francophone education systems, in particular, since the 1980s have unfolded in a nearly universal manner across the provinces. With the exception of New Brunswick, which was the first province to establish a separate French-language school board, all provinces officially established separate francophone school boards in the 1990s. Prior to this period, French-education programs were offered in public education systems across the country, but it was not until the mid-1990s, in response to a series of court cases (in particular the Mahe v. Alberta case of 1990), that provincial governments officially permitted the establishment of separate French-language school boards, and an English-language school board in the case of Quebec. Since then, independent francophone school boards have operated in all provinces and have been governed in a manner similar to that of any other school in the public system.

Indigenous education

Another key similarity experienced in every province over the past four decades has been the ongoing struggle of Indigenous people to gain control over their own education programs and to establish separate Indigenous school boards. Although band-operated schools have historically been permitted across the provinces and Indigenous education programs have been steadily integrated into the curricula of public schools since the 1980s in most provinces, Manitoba was the first and currently the only province to officially establish a separate Indigenous school board in 2017. One of the key issues shared cross-provincially during this period of time has been that of funding for Indigenous education programs. Although the funding and operation of band- operated Indigenous schools is the responsibility of the federal government, provincial governments have, through a series of negotiations with their respective Indigenous communities as well as with the federal government, agreed to provide additional funding opportunities for the development of Indigenous education programs. The levels of funding offered in these agreements differ widely across provincial jurisdictions, with some provinces (namely British Columbia) providing more opportunities than others to fund these programs at the provincial level.

Charter school

Since 1994, Alberta has been the only province to permit the establishment and operation of charter schools. Charter schools operate on agreements (known as charters) between these schools and the provincial government; the charters allow the schools to teach a curriculum that is unique to the schools educational approach so long as such charters are approved by the provincial government and are broadly consistent with the education programs of other schools in the public system (Thompson et al., 2016). Because charter schools are public schools, they are entitled to the same per-pupil funding provided to schools in the public system and have been funded entirely by the provincial government since their establishment in the mid-1990s. These schools have relatively high levels of autonomy to devise and deliver their own educational programs. Although the establishment of faith-based charter schools is not permitted, these schools are allowed to provide religious instruction, as is the case with any school in the public education system (Bosetti and Butterfield, 2016). The presence of charter schools is one of the key reasons why the province of Alberta has the highest levels of choice available to parents in the education of their children (especially in the public education system). There are currently 13 charter school authorities operating in Alberta that offer a variety of educational programs and methods of instruction (Mindzak, 2020).

Choice within the public education system

Beginning largely in the 1990s, every province has taken steps to expand choice beyond private alternatives such as home and independent schooling into the public education system itself. The most common indicators of this expansion have been the implementation of open enrolment policies, optional attendance with selective admission, and specialty schools and programs (for example, schools for elite athletes, schools for students with an aptitude for the arts, schools featuring an Afrocentric curriculum, etc.). British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec have arguably led the other provinces on the expansion of choice within the public school system by offering a range of educational opportunities as well as implementing open enrolment policies that allow students to enrol in schools outside of their catchment areas, though the remaining provinces have not lagged far behind. In fact, it is this indicator that has consistently scored highest in the index relative to others cross-provincially and over time. All provinces provide for optional attendance with selective admission, as well as specialty schools and programs inside their respective public education systems. The main source of difference crossprovincially on this indicator is whether or not provincial governments have implemented official open enrolment policies. Although British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec have established such policies, the remaining provinces that have not still permit parents to enrol their children in public schools outside of their catchment areas on a district-by-district basis and upon approval from the school(s) to which they are applying to enrol.

Accredited international school

Additional choice in the public education system through provincial government agreements with schools overseas is a more recent phenomenon in several provinces that has allowed public schools in these provinces to teach their curricula to students enrolled in schools abroad. This is an important indicator to consider given that a key aim of the CSCPI is to allow for a broad baseline for future research and cross-national comparisons. In particular, as the experience of postsecondary education over the past 20 years has demonstrated, education should no longer be understood as a solely domestic policy area. Currently, British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have established accredited international schools. Ontario, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island were the first to establish such programs in the 1990s, and the other provinces followed in the early 2000s. Each of these programs share similarities in their adherence to a set of regulations that mainly require partner schools to employ certified teachers, to undergo inspections by the province and to teach the respective provinces public education curriculum. These programs also allow for students enrolled in them overseas to obtain certified high school diplomas from the province with which they have an agreement upon graduation. Accredited international schools can therefore be seen as an expansion of the Canadian public education system by providing students in other countries the opportunity to essentially enrol in Canadian schools from abroad.

To suggest that the only category from those listed above where K-12 distance and online learning plays a role is homeschooling is just plain wrong.  Of the over 310,000 K-12 students enrolled in distance and/or online learning across Canada, only a VERY small percentage of those students would be considered homeschooled (in fact we believe that it would be less than 10% of that figure).  As 310,000 represents about 6% of all K-12 students in Canada, our estimates would be that the percentage of homeschooled students engaged in distance learning with me less than 0.5%.

However, there are several choice categories listed above that would have significant distance learning populations.

  • Independent school – In certain jurisdictions, the number of students enrolled in independent or private online schools is quite significant (e.g., British Columbia and Ontario).
  • State-delivered religious education – There are numerous distance and online learning programs run by religious school boards/districts in the three provinces listed above (i.e., Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario).
  • State-delivered minority language education – The LEARN program in Quebec or the Centre francophone d’éducation à distance in Alberta are examples of these kinds of programs.  In fact, in New Brunswick approximately one third of the distance learning that is delivered is done through the Clic of the Ministère de l’Éducation et du développement de la petite enfance.
  • Indigenous education – There are several Indigenous online programs across the country.  Additionally, several online programs (both public and one of the categories listed here) offer Indigenous language and Indigenous studies courses for all students.
  • Choice within the public education system – This is actually the very definition of supplemental distance learning.  It provides students with the choice to access a course that they might not be able to get in their assigned brick-and-mortar school because of lack of enrollment, lack of teacher expertise, or scheduling conflicts.  It provides students with the choice to access a course from a teacher other than the one in their brick-and-mortar school or in a medium different from the one used to deliver the course in their brick-and-mortar school.  Regardless of whether the entity providing the distance learning course is an independent school, a state-delivered religious school, a state-delivered minority language school, or an Indigenous school, the distance learning offering represents choice within the public education system.

This is not to suggest that the authors use of the Canada School Choice Policy Index was flawed, as our read of the article suggests that it was well applied.  This commentary does suggest that the authors misplaced – and potentially misunderstood – the role of distance learning within the context of school choice in Canada.

Article Review – Charting the Rise of School Choice across Canadian Provinces: A Policy Index

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