It’s been a maddening two-and-a-half years of fighting school board bureaucracy for David Pace-Bonello and Joey Nichol.

They’ve watched their son, Julian, struggle in school. He’s a bright, compassionate kid, but has a hard time in class at Queen Victoria Elementary.

His pediatrician, learning resource teachers and other experts they have consulted all believe he has dyslexia. But without a test called a psycho-educational assessment to confirm the diagnosis, the Grade 5 student can’t access specialized programming for his learning disability.

'What we’re doing to these kids is a moral emergency.' - David Pace-Bonello

So the 10-year-old sat for a year-and-a-half on a Hamilton Wentworth District School Board waiting list for his turn to be tested while his parents fought against the brutally long wait times — and that's after they tried for a year just to get him onto the list.

They could have chosen to do what many wealthier parents do: Pay for the testing themselves at a private clinic and buy their way to the head of the line. The testing is available from private clinics for a fee of $2,000 to $3,500 — but that option was more than Pace-Bonello and Nichol could afford.

It took months of badgering school officials, trustees and school superintendents, Pace-Bonello says, but Julian finally got tested last month — after years of precious time slipped away from his son.

In a system that's supposed to be equal for all children, their story exposes the  growing problem with wait times for the vital tests and the issue of unequal access for kids who are most vulnerable, those with learning disabilities in low-income areas who can't afford to pay for private tests.

"It’s now or never for this sort of stuff,” he told CBC Hamilton from his lower city home. "What we’re doing to these kids is a moral emergency.”

Balancing testing and programming

The school board says it is doing everything in its power to meet student’s needs, and has to divvy up limited resources for both testing and programming in a way that best serves all students.

People within the system don’t dispute that the waits for many students are too long. But addressing the long wait and the ability of wealthier parents to jump the line are difficult questions.

The HWDSB knows how important this testing is, and is doing everything it can to provide services to special needs students, says Shelly Woon, the superintendent of leadership and learning with the board.

"Many parents feel they’re on a wait list too long,” Woon said. "And that’s a provincial concern.” This is an Ontario issue, she says, not simply a Hamilton one.

The problem, she says, is funding. The school board has a finite budget and so puts more money into programming than testing. The goal is to have as much programming available as possible for students with special needs. The alternative, she says, is lots of testing – but fewer programs at the other end of the tunnel.

Former board chair and long-time trustee, Judith Bishop, recognized the problem and sees it as a serious concern.

"The school board does need to review its way of allocating testing," Bishop told CBC Hamilton.

Hundreds of students on waiting list right now

It’s difficult to say exactly how many students are on a waiting list for testing in any given school in the city. Pace-Bonello says he was never able to get a straight answer as to where his son sat at their school.

According to the Hamilton-Wentworth District School board, 405 students are currently on a wait list for psycho-educational testing. Wait times for testing can vary – 20 per cent are seen within six months, the board says, while over half of students get tested within six months to a year.

'There are more people wanting this assessment than there are people in the province available to do it' - Shelly Woon, HWDSB, superintendent, leadership and learning

But some wait considerably longer. Twelve per cent of students wait between a year and 15 months to get tested and 14 per cent about one in seven — wait over 15 months.

More parents are also pushing for testing, which is contributing to a backlog in the system. There were 346 students on the waiting list in December. By January, that number had jumped to 405.

"Sometimes people feel a psycho-educational assessment is going to be a magic wand,” Woon said. In reality, it simply narrows things down so that teachers have more strategies to help students learn.

"Some students might be on a wait list longer because we have to be sure a student is in the best position to be assessed,” she said. Students who are dealing with trauma or crisis aren’t in the best head space to be tested.

Parents paying for their own testing

The board does try to address areas with higher needs by allocating more testing time to those areas. It ranks schools by high, medium and low levels of need when it comes to testing. A number of factors play into that ranking – like the socioeconomic status of the area and the number of people in the school with special needs.

'We’re going to pretend that this is the one aspect in society where it’s not better to be wealthy? Come on.' - David Pace-Bonello

It’s no surprise that schools in poorer areas have an increased need and are ranked higher.

Bishop told CBC Hamilton she has voiced concerns over the way children wait to be tested.

"Perhaps the targets set for each school are too rigid — and there are schools with many more problems than others."

Pace-Bonello, whose son attends a lower city school, says he isn’t surprised by perceived inequality when it comes to testing distribution, even if education is supposed to be a level playing field for all kids, regardless of family income.

"We’re going to pretend that this is the one aspect in society where it’s not better to be wealthy? Come on.”

He doesn’t blame parents who can simply buy their way out of the queue. He would do the same for his child if he could. But seeing as public education should be equal, the fact that a parent can just spend $2,500 on a test and get special programming for their child leaves a sour taste in the mouths of some.

As a public school system, Woon says, the HWDSB isn’t able to factor private testing into the way their testing is distributed. "If a parent does do that, I’m not going to say no, though,” she said.

In lieu of more funding, the board is reevaluating the way it communicates with parents and taking a look at the way wait lists are constructed. "There are more people wanting this assessment than there are people in the province available to do it,” Woon said.

"I don’t want children sitting on a wait list for years, either.”