School Choice and Equity was recently recognized by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) as a critical public policy issue throughout the educational world. An OECD study with that title published by Pauline Musset on 24 January 2012 surveyed and assessed the range and variety of school choice in 34 different countries. While Canada was among the countries included, much of the Canadian data was incomplete, rendering any definitive evaluation of where we stand virtually impossible. Not only that, but the detailed bibliography contained no academic research whatsoever emanating from Canada. http://www.oecd.org/officialdocuments/publicdisplaydocumentpdf/?cote=EDU/WKP%282012%293&docLanguage=En
The Toronto Globe and Mail’s Erin Anderssen followed up on February 17, 2012 with a feature story, “Inequitable Schooling,” purporting to be responding to the OECD study, School Choice and Equity. Departing from Musset’s OECD paper, Anderssen focused almost entirely on one particular aspect — the potential impact of parental choice on “equality” within the educational system. http://m.theglobeandmail.com/life/parenting/education/school/why-inequality-is-growing-in-public-schools/article2341085/?service=mobile
Faced with incomplete data, the Globe writer, left to her own devices, cobbled together interviews from educators, parents and education school professors. In many ways, the piece missed the entire point of the OECD study and simply reinforced conventional educational thinking here in Canada. In what amounted to a Freudian slip, the OECD study was even misidentified as a report on “School Choice and Equality.”
Why take issue with The Globe and Mail ‘s Family and Relationships section story? For one simple reason: It completely ignores the OECD study’s most significant findings and the compelling case it presents for extending school choice to improve both student performance and social equity. Nor does the piece ask the most fundamental question of all – why Canada stands out as one of the few countries not actively introducing school choice within the publicly-funded system.
The facts presented in the OECD report would be startling to most Canadians with children in the school system. Over the past 25 years, over two-thirds of the OECD countries have increased “school choice opportunities for parents.” Choice programs, Musset notes, “can be perceived as leading to a general improvement in the quality of education, and fostering efficiency and innovation.” She also recognizes that school choice can “exacerbate inequities” if it is not introduced in a careful fashion seeking to balance “parental right to choose with the social imperative of equity.”
The OECD report, unlike Anderssen’s article, reaffirms the right and desire of most parents to choose a school. It assesses the availablity of choice across the range of OECD countries, albeit with fragmentary evidence from Canada. Countries offering the greatest school choice, according an OECD principals survey, are Australia, Japan, the Slovak Republic, and Belgium, and not the United States.
On average across OECD countries, 85% of students are enrolled in public education. Sixteen of the 33 countries (48.5%) have 10% or more of their students enrolled in either government-dependent or government-independent private schools. Five countries have adopted fee zones for attendance, eliminating districting by school planners: The Netherlands, New Zealand, Chile, Italy, and Belgium. Most significantly, the OECD reports that private schools clearly outperform public schools in only three countries: Slovenia, Canada, and Ireland.
School choice, according to the report, “has become prevalent across OECD countries, and is increasing.” While United States school choice policy initiatives garner much public debate, the OECD study highlights different models, most notably Sweden’s voucher system. Since 1992, Sweden — unlike Finland — has had a universal voucher system where grants follow the child and a voucher can be used to pay tuition in a private, independent, non-denominational school. In this social democracy, all places are open to sudents on a “first come, first served” basis and private schools cannot charge more than the per pupil grant for tuition. Both The Netherlands and Chile also have universal progressive voucher systems.
Targeted school choice programs are more common in the United States. In states like Wisconsin and Ohio, school choice initiatives were tailored specifically for students from disadvantaged families. The initial Milwaukee voucher program, started in 1990, was strictly limited to serving lower income families, whereas Ohio’s state-wide educational choice scholarship program, introduced in 2006 and limited to students in “failing schools” , expanded to serve 34 school districts and 213 schools by 2008. Outside of Alberta, few Canadian school boards, except for Ontario’s largest, the Toronto District School Board and one or two others, have dared to hint at moving in this direction.
The OECD study did not, as The Globe story implies, obsess over the potential inequalities resulting from giving parents freedom of choice in education. It was identified as a possible consequence, but the report also recognized the “imperfections” associated with “a single provider system.” The OECD actually reached the opposite conclusion. “A careful design of school choice schemes,” Musset asserted, “can allow (education authorities/ districts) to combine parental freedom, enhanced opportunities for disadvantaged children and equity.”(p. 43)
Public discussion of school choice in Canada remains at a very primitive level. Since the mid-1990s, the Society for Quality Education has performed yeoman service championing the caise of parental choice in the face of a rather intransigent public education system. A recent move by the York Region District School Board to eliminate the Arts@Baythorn program has backfired badly on defenders of the one-size-fits-all public education system. It has succeeded in arousing parents seeking arts enrichment English programs in an otherwise “choice-less” school district. http://www.yrdsb.edu.on.ca/pdfs/a/agenda/ms/sc120124/yrdsb-sc120124-p1-20.pdf
Defenders of the single provider education system are marshalling their forces with the support of the usual band of OISE education professors. A recent TVO program The Agenda, hosted by Steve Paikin, gave Annie Kidder of People for Education so much airtime that everyone was left confused about the real issues at stake. Her posts on P4E’s Blog reveal a particular fondness for social solidarity based upon a vague notion of “common school” experience. http://schools-at-the-centre.ning.com/forum/topics/choice-specialty-schools-and
All is not lost. Most encouraging has been the rise of a School Choice movement centred in York Region, north of Toronto. http://yorkregionwantschoice.org/ ” School doesn’t have to be boring,” York Region advocates say. ” If it’s the right school for the right kid, it can be a wonderful, stimulating experience. Many kids can find this social and educational success at their home school. But not all…. If you feel that the children, the rate-payers, and the communities of York Region are no less deserving of educational choice and opportunity than people in the Catholic board, the Toronto board, the Peel board, or the many others, it’s time to raise your voice. Because after April 4, these opportunities for our children could be lost forever.”
School choice is on the horizon and Canadian educational authorities, except possibly for those in Alberta and Metropolitan Toronto, are still in denial. Why is Canada now an outlier among the leading OECD countries? Why is school choice essentially absent from the research agenda at OISE and other faculties of education? What is standing in the way of a wide-open public debate over the current “single provider” system and the policy option of allowing parents the freedom to choose their children’s schools?