Modified Voucher Would Improve Public Education

Commentary, Education, Rodney Clifton

Public education is in crisis and something needs to be done about it. In the last few weeks we have read news reports that:

  • In Alberta, 21,000 teachers were legislated back to work after striking for substantially higher salaries and fewer responsibilities.
  • The Liberal government in BC forced school boards to publish “accountability contracts” for parents and taxpayers and the BC teachers’ union was outraged.
  • A Newfoundland mother, Patsy Day, will probably go to jail because she attempted to force the local school to teach her 12-year-old son, Mark, to read.
  • Thousands of other parents are paying millions of dollars for private educational agencies (private tutors, Sylvan Learning Centres, etc.) to teach their children basic skills–reading, writing, and mathematics–that the public schools have already been paid to do.

To seriously address these problems, all we need is a small but manageable change in provincial legislation. Provincial governments need to enact a law that will force school boards to pay for the remedial education, at independent agencies, to any normally-endowed student who has been independently assessed as being below standard (say, two grades below grade level). That is, the total cost of the remediation for students at private agencies would be provided by school boards and not by parents, as is currently the case.

Why support private educational agencies with public money? Because they are the only agencies that have the flexibility, at any time during the academic year, to provide the service and the competition that is necessary to hold public schools accountable, and particularly to hold them accountable for the academic performances of poor and rural children.

As expected, school boards would dislike paying private agencies for remedial lessons for their students because it could potentially drain their reserves of discretionary money. This possibility, by itself, would ensure more accountability in public education. Consequently, they would try to ensure that as few students as possible spent as little time as possible in private remediation. Parents and taxpayers, of course, would support this action.

Not only would schools be made more accountable, parents would be as well. In this scheme, parents would pay for the initial assessments of their children, conducted by professionals (psychologists, reading specialists, etc.) external to both the public system and the private agencies, which would ensure that the assessments were independent from the schools and, by law, independent from the agencies delivering the remedial service. Of course, nothing would prevent private foundations, churches, and other public-interest groups from assisting poor families with the costs. Parents would no longer be inclined to accept, at face value, the standard advice now given by teachers that they should not worry about their children’s educational achievement because they are ‘progressing at their own pace.’

This simple change in educational legislation would have a number of desirable consequences. Over time, principals and superintendents would become more careful in hiring and retaining good teachers and creating school environments in which teachers and parents cooperate to ensure that all students progress at reasonable rates. School administrators, in turn, would have disincentives for shuffling incompetent teachers from school to school in the so-called ‘turkey trot’ that exists now.

Principals would also have strong incentives to ensure that their best teachers teach the most difficult students. No longer would excellent teachers be able to bargain with administrators to obtain the best classes of students, leaving the most difficult students for inexperienced teachers. Similarly, both teachers and principals would have good reasons to reintroduce rigorous disciplinary programs for students who intentionally disrupt the education of others. In fact, they would also have good reasons to provide effective remedial programs for borderline students who are most likely to be disruptive.

Finally, there would be pressure on faculties of education–the Trojan horses of the failing public educational system–to ensure that all graduates can teach and evaluate basic literacy and numeracy at various grade levels. Faculties that did not adequately educate their student-teachers would soon hear from graduates who failed to obtain teaching positions. They would also hear from principals and superintendents who inadvertently hired less-than-competent graduates.

Even though it is relatively easy to fix the problems in public education, few provincial politicians are convinced that the problems are serious enough for them to take on the powerful interest groups–teachers’ unions, principals, trustees, superintendents, and professors of education–who protect the status quo. Nevertheless, if public schools are to be reformed, politicians must empower parents and, at the same time, disempower the self-serving interest groups. If politicians cared more about students than they do about these powerful groups, Patsy Day could obtain a guarantee that Mark would learn to read before he turned 13. Similarly, millions of other parents could get the same guarantee from other public schools. If we were serious about educational reform, “success for all learners” would become more than just another trite educational slogan.