Explainer: Enrolment and funding in Ontario’s K-12 schools
Last week the Institute released Working Paper 33, Teaching for tomorrow: Building the necessary skills today, which examined whether Ontario’s education system has the capacity to provide youth with the skills they will require to thrive in future labour markets. One important factor in schools’ ability to provide youth with in-demand skills is whether or not they have sufficient funding. In 2017-18, 18 percent of the government’s total expenditures went toward educating Ontarians through public elementary and secondary schools. Most education funding in Ontario is disbursed on the basis of student enrolment, and for many school boards enrolment has been declining in recent years. If this trend continues, it may create new challenges for the provincial government and school boards as they endeavor to deliver consistent, high quality education to all youth regardless of their location.
Across Canada, public school enrolment has declined over the past 20 years with the exception of Alberta, the lone province with an increased number of school-aged children (Exhibit 1). In Ontario total kindergarten to grade 12 enrolment has declined by approximately 100,000 between 1997/98 and 2015/16.
Exhibit 1: Percent change in public school enrolment, Canada and select provinces, 1997/98 to 2015/16
While enrolment in elementary schools has remained fairly stable, secondary school (high school) enrolment has gone through notable fluctuations over the years due to the phasing out of the Ontario Academic Credit (Grade 13) in 2004 and increased student retention as a result of higher graduation rates (Exhibit 2). Between 2005 and 2016, the five-year graduation rate in Ontario increased 18 percentage points from 68 percent to 86.5 percent. Yet despite this higher graduation rate, there has been a sharp decline in secondary school enrolment. Between 2011 and 2016, enrolment in Ontario secondary schools declined by 63,742 students.
Exhibit 2: Percent change in elementary and secondary school enrolment, Ontario, 1999/00 to 2015/16
Some of the decline in enrolment at the secondary school level can be explained by a lower birth rate, which has caused the school-age population in Ontario to shrink. At the elementary level, the smaller school-age population has been offset by junior kindergarten enrolment, which has increased by approximately 30,000 between 1997/98 and 2015/16.
One factor that could also be influencing shrinking secondary enrolment is that more youth are enrolled in independent or private schools in Ontario: between 2000 and 2014, enrolment in these alternative schools increased by 17.9 percent (20,000 students). 
Given that a private school education can be extremely costly—Ontario provides no public funding specifically for alternative schools and average annual tuition ranges from $13,000 to $23,000—it makes sense that parents would choose to invest in their children’s education in the years closest to post-secondary education, where the additional support and opportunities available at private schools could impact post-secondary pathways. For example, 35 percent of private school students across Canada had graduated from university by age 23, compared with 21 percent of public school students.
Shrinking enrolment has also not been evenly distributed across Ontario school boards. Some suburban school boards and French school boards have experienced an influx of students while the student body of predominantly rural and northern school boards has dropped significantly (Exhibit 3). For example, enrolment in the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board dropped by 8.0 percent between 2011/12 and 2015/16. By contrast, the Halton District School Board experienced a 7.4 percent increase in enrolment over the same period. Overall across Ontario’s 71 school boards with elementary and secondary schools, there was a 2.9 percent decline in enrolment between 2011/12 and 2015/16.
Exhibit 3: Changes in enrolment, Ontario school boards, 2011/12 to 2015/16
What does declining enrolment mean for school boards?
In Ontario, more than 90 percent of school boards’ operational funding comes from the Grant for Student Needs (GSN). In the 2018-19 school year, the Ministry of Education plans to spend approximately $24.5 billion on education through the GSN. The Pupil Foundation Grant—which comprises nearly half of the GSN—provided financial support for elements of classroom education generally common to all students and is distributed to school boards based on enrolment. Per-pupil grants are calculated differently for kindergarten, primary (grades 1-3), junior (grades 4-6), intermediate (grades 7-8), and secondary (grades 9-12) students, which reflects differences in teacher benchmark salaries and benefits, class size requirements, and teacher prep time.
Until recently, enrolment in Ontario public schools has been increasing, allowing schools and school boards to expand their capacity. However now with shrinking student bodies, and by association less operation funding, many school boards will need to downsize. While schools and school boards can reduce their costs—and there is a declining adjustment fund available through the GSN—this may take multiple years, and while some costs can be reduced, others cannot without impacting the learning environment and the resources students have access to. Going forward, policymakers and education stakeholders will need to be aware of enrolment and its interplay with funding in order to ensure it does not impact young Ontarians' education.
Written by: Margaret Campbell
Photo credit: gmast3r, istockphoto
 Ministry of Education. “High School Graduation Rate Climbs to All-Time High.” Government of Ontario Newsroom. Published May 8, 2017, accessed September 18, 2018. https://news.ontario.ca/edu/en/2017/05/high-school-graduation-rate-climbs-to-all-time-high.html
 McWilliams, Susan. “Declining Enrolment in Ontario Public Schools – Implications for the Teacher Labour Market,” Queen’s University. 2008. https://irc.queensu.ca/sites/default/files/articles/declining-enrolment-in-ontario-public-schools-implications-for-the-teacher-labour-market.pdf
MacLeod, Angela and Sazid Hasan. “Measuring Student Enrolment in Canada – 2017.” Fraser Institute. 2017. https://www.fraserinstitute.org/sites/default/files/where-our-students-are-educated-measuring-student-enrolment-in-canada-2017.pdf
 Institute for Competitiveness & Prosperity analysis based on data from Our Kids, “School tuition and costs: a complete guide.” Accessed September 23, 2018. http://www.ourkids.net/private-schools-tuition-costs.php
 Frenette, Marc and Ping Ching Winnie Chan. “Why Are Academic Prospects Brighter for Private High School Students?” Statistics Canada. Modified November 27, 2015, accessed September 18, 2018. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11-626-x/11-626-x2015044-eng.htm
 Institute for Competitiveness & Prosperity analysis based on data from the Ontario Ministry of Education, enrolment by grade in elementary schools and enrolment by grade in secondary schools.