School Choice Is Necessary, but Choice Alone Is Not Enough

January 14, 2021 Updated: January 18, 2021


One great thing about living in a Western society is that citizens have plenty of choices. We get to decide where we shop, which events we attend, what type of car we drive, and which friends we have.

However, this past year has shown us what life is like when our choices are seriously restricted. For many of us, the COVID-19 health restrictions are the first time when we have had the government tell us what we can do and when we can do it. Naturally, we don’t like it—nor should we.

Limiting our choices isn’t natural for people who live in a free country. We should be very glad that COVID-19 restrictions are only temporary. Life would be very unpleasant if we had to live like this indefinitely.

Unfortunately, there is one area where choice remains extremely limited for most Canadians, and it will remain limited even when things go back to normal. When choosing a school for their children, parents, especially those with limited incomes, have virtually no options outside the public system.

While every family has access to a local school, there is no guarantee that it will provide an excellent education. That is because some schools are better than others. Contrary to what teachers’ unions appear to think, parents know full well that some teachers are excellent, some are average, and some should be in a different profession.

This is a not a problem for wealthy families. They can send their children to private schools and pay for tutors. They could also move to a different neighbourhood. In addition, they can take their kids on educational trips around the country or even around the world and purchase plenty of books and other learning materials. Simply put, wealthy families have choices available when it comes to helping their children get an education.

All other parents, though, had better hope that their local school meets their children’s specific needs. Because that is the only choice they have.

All families, both rich and poor, deserve to have more options. One way to expand choice is to pass legislation that allows organizations to create charter schools. These are schools that are publicly funded, but operate independently from a school board. While charter schools are common in the United States and the United Kingdom, Alberta is the only province in Canada that has, so far, allowed them.

Charter schools have been hugely beneficial to parents in Alberta. As a case in point, Foundations for the Future Charter Academy offers a traditional educational program and has thousands of families on its waiting list. This school has multiple campuses throughout the city of Calgary and continues to grow steadily, but it still cannot keep up to the demand.

It’s important to note that charter schools are not private schools and are not allowed to charge tuition fees. This makes them accessible to all families, not just wealthy families.

In Alberta, some people have expressed concern that charter schools cause public schools to lose students, but nothing is stopping public boards from providing better education and more choices for families.

The Edmonton Public School Board, for example, provides many different types of schools within its system. Parents in Edmonton can choose from traditional schools, sports academies, arts-focused schools, and even religious schools. With so many choices available in a public school board, there is little need for more private schools or for charter schools.

However, choice alone is not sufficient to ensure children receive a quality education. Above all else, there needs to be quality choices for families. Otherwise, school choice becomes like a buffet that serves only junk food. In that situation, all choices are equally bad.

This is why we must pay attention to things like curriculum reform and improvements in teacher education. If the curriculum has insufficient content or is not well-organized, and if prospective teachers have not been well educated in university, focusing on fads rather than substance, there won’t be any good schools for parents to choose from. Choice alone is not sufficient to guarantee a good education to students.

In order to improve schools, we need to have a solid curriculum in all subject areas, well-educated and well-trained professional teachers, and a variety of meaningful school choices for families to consider. It is not helpful to talk only about school choice or to focus only on curriculum reform without acknowledging that parents need meaningful options for their children.

School choice is necessary to improve our children’s education, but that alone is definitely not sufficient.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, 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.