The latest report on the state of School Choice in Canada dropped out of thin air on February 27, 2014 and hit with barely a thud. Produced for the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, the report entitled Measuring Choice and Competition in Canadian Education generated a predictable media response. “Alberta leads the nation in offering parents and kids more school options compared to its provincial counterparts,” The Calgary Herald chirped. “In terms of choice, it’s very clear that Alberta goes out of its way purposefully, strategically, to provide parents with choice not only within the public system but outside the public system,” stated Jason Clemens, executive vice-president of the Fraser Institute and co-author of the report. So, you might ask, what else is new?
The Fraser Institute study provided a very useful comparative analysis of the range of school choices available from most (Alberta and BC) to least (all of Atlantic Canada, except for New Brunswick). Like most previous North American reports, it turned to free market economic theory to make its case. Increasing school choice and competition, Clemens and his co-authors argue, spurs “quality, lower prices and innovation,” which in turn leads to improved student performance and an enhanced education system.
School choice in Canada, according to the Fraser Institute, now encompasses having parallel public and separate school systems (both in French and English) and so Canada is, by virtue of this factor, supposedly more open to choice than might be thought, given the relative uniformity of bureaucratic structures and provincial curricula. Once again, Alberta is the exemplary province, the only one to authorize charter schools and provide some funding to students who are homeschooled.
“The presence of charter schools in Alberta provides an additional source of choice, which provides parents with additional options outside of traditional linguistic and religious alternatives offered by public school boards,” reads the report. Conversely, the Atlantic Provinces offer “comparatively little parental choice and competition among schools.”
“It’s pretty hard to look at any metric in the independent school sector, public or home-schooling where Alberta is not at the top of the list in terms of trying to proactively provide parents with more choice,” Clemens said. He also pointed to a growing body of research in Europe and the U.S. that suggest a “clear link” between parental choice and student performance. Then, he attempted to apply that to Canada, arguing that it explained, in many ways, why BC and Alberta tend to ” do pretty well on education testing and education performance generally.”
The School Choice report is disappointing, especially for those who favour expanding the range of choice available in Canada’s provincial school systems. Parents and students in the 21st century are so accustomed to having and making choices in life that the public school systems are completely out of sync with the rest of society. Instead of relying on the tired old arguments of Milton Friedman and the free market theorists, the case would have had far more bite if it had been based upon the rights of students and parents as “‘consumers of education’ to better schools more attuned to student needs.
Students and parents in all Canadian provinces, including Alberta, would benefit from more school choices inside the public school system. There is only one choice for the vast majority of Atlantic Canadians living in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island. Over 95% of all K-12 students in these three provinces are offered only one brand of school, the standard English Public School model. In New Brunswick, some 28% of all students attend Francophone schools, but their curriculum and program are, with a few exceptions, a French mirror image of the Anglophone version.
Atlantic Canada is, putting it bluntly, a “take it or leave it” public system where only more affluent families have an alternative, the odd private independent school and homeschooling, enrolling only 1 to 2.5% of the total student population. Out of 430 total schools in Nova Scotia, only 30 are private or independent (without public funding) and they only enroll 2,949 students or 2.2 % of the total provincial enrollment. About 2,600 First Nations students (2.1%) do attend very small Mi’kmaw Education Authority schools in 13 different native communities. Fewer than 250 Nova Scotia students receive tax support to attend special schools for kids with severe learning disabilities.
Alberta, upon closer examination, is not quite the nirvana painted by the Fraser Institute. Some 70.4 % of Alberta students attend the “one big system” ( Public/English), 22.9% the Catholic/French systems, 4.6% private/independent, 1.3% charter schools, and 1.6% are home schooled, receiving some $1650 per year for resources. Under the Alberta Charter School law, the numbers of publicly-funded charters are limited (to 15) and enrollments are capped, leaving 8,000 students on waiting lists in Calgary alone. Introducing charter schools in the mid-1990s hardly proved destabilizing because the flow was restricted and only 1% of the student population were able choose them.
Public fears about charter schools are fueled by defenders of the existing educational order — and appear to be not only irrational but unfounded. Giving parents and students more school choices and more variety in terms of alternative programs would not be ‘the end of the world.’ Students and parents in Canada’s largest urban school systems like Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver, already have many school choice options and have “open school boundaries” allowing students to attend schools of their own choice. School district “boundary reviews” provoke an intense public outcry for good reason – the school board is dictating where your children are going to attend school.
School choice is gradually emerging as a fundamental human right for students and families. Choosing the best school for your child should not be so difficult or next-to-impossible without significant financial means. School systems would benefit from being more open and responsive to a wider range of student needs and aspirations. The only challenge is to build in safeguards to prevent a mass exodus and to ensure that actions are taken to improve under-performing schools. That is the kind of “transition planning” that will make a real difference in the lives and educational outcomes of students.
Why is the School Choice Debate in Canada so theory-ridden and ideologically stilted? Why do School Choice advocates rely so heavily on Milton Friedman and the free market theorists? Why, on the other hand, do Canada’s so-called ‘educational progressives’ cling to the established system and respond with cliche-ridden critiques of creeping “neo-liberalism” and “privatization”? What if we simply gave students and parents a wider array of public school options and stopped worrying about limiting their choices?