Fraser Institute offers tuition grants to needy families

TORONTO — Children First: School Choice Trust – a program of the  Fraser Institute, a conservative think tank – is in its sixth year of offering grants to low-income families for tuition at private schools, including religious schools.

The program, which began in 2003, covers half the cost of tuition, at any Ontario private school that is registered with the provincial ministry of education, up to a maximum of $4,000. They are available as early as junior kindergarten and are renewable until students complete Grade 8, subject to funding availability.

In Ontario, the program, which is funded by the W. Garfield Weston Foundation, supports about 1,000 children at more than 200 private schools. Recipients include 57 students at 13 different Jewish schools, mostly in the Toronto area, according to Michael Thomas, director of the program.

Jewish day school tuition in the Toronto area ranges from about $10,500 to more than $14,000 per year in the elementary grades.

There are also two students receiving grants at Jewish schools in Calgary, where the program was instituted more recently.

Other sources of funding – such as subsidies or family support – for the remaining portion of tuition do not affect eligibility, said Thomas.

If grantees remain eligible for the program, they are allowed to renew their grant every year until Grade 8. That means there are about 300 openings for new grantees in Ontario, Thomas said.

Sometimes students leave the program if they move out of province or transfer to the public school system, he noted.

Family income is the sole deciding factor for grant eligibility, although with many more applicants than available money, new grants are awarded  based on a lottery.

To qualify, household income “must not exceed amounts equal to twice the poverty line as defined by the [Fraser Insitute’s] Basic Needs Index,” to the program’s website says.

More specifically, for a family of four to qualify for the coming school year, 2007 income would have to be less than $52,817. Likewise, for a family of three, $45,469; two people $37,411, five people, $59,653; and six or more in the household $66,091.

Thomas noted that some parents have come up with “really creative solutions” to pay for the portion of tuition not covered by the grant. He recalled two cases (not at Jewish schools) in which parents worked on a volunteer basis at their children’s schools in exchange for tuition credit.

“Children First helps families who have different needs, whether it’s a desire for smaller class sizes to help their kids catch up, developing artistic talents, or just wanting a safe school that teaches values important to the family,” Thomas said in a news release.

The impetus for the program, Thomas said, was research conducted by Claudia Hepburn, the institute’s director of education policy, on student performance when parents have greater choice of schools.

Among its findings were improved student literacy and improvement in performance of public schools, Thomas said.

Although many scholarships exist for post-secondary education, the Children First program was the first of its kind in Canada and is the only one of its kind in Ontario, said Thomas.

He followed with interest last fall’s provincial election, when funding of faith-based schools was a key issue, but “because we’re a registered charity, we remain non-partisan and don’t take positions on those kinds of debates.”

However, he added, “certainly there would have been a benefit to many of our families [if government funding of faith-based schools had been implemented], and it would have allowed us to help more families attending other schools.” He noted that approximately 75 per cent of Ontario’s 800 private schools are faith-based.

Grant applications are available online at www.childrenfirstgrants.ca. Applications can also be submitted by registered mail or by calling 1-866-924-8881.