Many Benefits to More School Choice

June 1, 2020 Updated: June 2, 2020

Commentary

Out of all Canadian provinces, Alberta provides the most educational options to parents and students. Not only is Alberta the only province that allows charter schools to exist, it also provides independent schools with the most generous per-student operating funding in the country.

In addition, Alberta’s second-largest public school board (Edmonton), has long made choice a feature of its approach to education. Parents who want an alternative to the standard neighbourhood schools have the option of enrolling their children in specialty schools that focus on areas such as Indigenous education, sports, science, religious education, or performing arts. These are just some of the options available within Edmonton’s public system.

Now the Alberta government plans to expand educational choice across the province. On May 28, education minister Adriana LaGrange introduced Bill 15, the Choice in Education Act. Among other things, this legislation will make it easier for groups to start charter schools by allowing them to apply directly to the education minister instead of having to go through local school boards. This makes sense since school boards tend to view charter schools as competition and are reluctant to approve them.

Bill 15 also includes an explicit affirmation that, “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.” The act also specifically recognizes that public schools, separate schools, francophone schools, private schools, and home education are all valued and integral in providing choice to parents.

In addition, home schooling parents will no longer need to be supervised by an Alberta school board. They must still register their intention to home school with the province but parents are free to choose the program that works best for their children.

Unsurprisingly, critics were quick to denounce these changes. The anti-choice lobby group Support Our Students (SOS) suggested that Bill 15 would undermine public education. Of course, if groups like SOS had their way, the government would pull funding from all alternative schools and lower-income parents would have no choice but to send their children to their neighbourhood public schools.

However, the anti-choice groups are wrong. Not only should the Alberta government press forward with the Choice in Education Act, other provinces should follow suit. That’s because most provinces place too many limits on the choices available to parents and give school boards a near-monopoly over education.

As previously noted, Alberta is the only province to allow any charter schools at all. That’s a shame because other provinces are missing out on the many potential benefits of charter schools, as we have seen from the success stories in Alberta. For example, the tiny rural hamlet of Valhalla Centre saved its only school from imminent closure by forming a charter school while Calgary’s Foundations for the Future Charter Academy is so popular with students and parents that it has thousands of children on its wait list.

In addition, it makes sense for money to follow the student. That’s why Alberta provides partial operating funding to all independent schools that follow the Alberta curriculum and hire provincially certified teachers. While the other western provinces also partially fund independent schools, most eastern provinces leave parents to fend for themselves if they wish to leave the public system.

To be clear, denying funding to independent schools doesn’t hurt wealthy parents—they can afford higher tuition payments. Rather, it limits the options available to low-income and middle-income families who often struggle to make ends meet. In contrast, letting the money follow the student equalizes educational opportunities for families with limited means and enables them to choose schooling options currently beyond their reach due to financial limitations.

Instead of imposing one system on everyone, provinces should fund whatever school parents wish to enroll their children in. This would move us away from the tiresome debate about independent schools funding and put the emphasis on the choices made by students and their parents.

Doing so would allow each student to attend any school of his or her choice, and a school’s provincial funding would then depend on the number of students who choose it, provided they follow the provincial curriculum and demonstrate that their students are learning it. While it is important to hold all schools accountable for their academic results, it makes little sense to assume that a one-size-fits-all approach is suitable for our diverse population.

As for the argument that giving parents more choices will weaken public education, Alberta, the province with the most choices available now, regularly achieves above-average results on standardized reading and math assessments. Clearly, expanding the choices available to parents doesn’t weaken public education, it strengthens it.

Other provinces would do well to learn from Alberta’s example. Parents and students across the country deserve more educational choices.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.