Refining School Choice

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

The most biting criticism directed at opponents of our health-care monopoly points to the danger of establishing a “two-tier” medical system, a superior one for the rich and an inferior one for the poor. Yet the folks who raise these cries of alarm are often the same people who tolerate, even enthusiastically support a two-tier system in our public schools. Parents with more limited means send their children to a school with full tax support, while the affluent have the options of moving to neighbourhoods with excellent schools and, if this fails, using private schools where the curriculum and standards are often far superior.

Nobody believes that only well-to-do people are capable of choosing what is best for their own children Manitoba’s 1995 Schools of Choice Act improved the situation slightly, but it simply didn’t go far enough. Schools that receive a large number of Schools of Choice applications filled up very quickly. The provincial government has consistently refused to expand or build schools as long as nearby schools have available space. This policy begs the question of why some schools always have room while others are always full.

The Province directly discriminates against the poor by limiting tax-funded support for private schools, which cannot receive more than 50% of the allotments to public schools. Families who choose this alternative must pay the full regime of school taxes, then scrimp to raise additional money if they want to send their children to the alternative private or independent schools. Many independent schools hesitate to protest this extraordinary discrimination because they fear the loss of the 50% support they now receive.

At this year’s convention, a majority of the Manitoba Teachers Society’s executive spoke in favour of allowing private school teachers to become full members of the union. Although the resolution was shelved for further study, it is clear that a large number of public school teachers agree that a teacher is a teacher-regardless of whether their school is private or public. If this is the case, then a school is also a school, no matter who owns and operates it. Consequently, low-income parents should not be subject to financial penalties if they wish to send their children to private schools.

A landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling recently opened the door to increased school choice in the United States. Parents in Cleveland, Ohio were provided with a $2,250 voucher that they could use at any school they wished-even private religious schools. The Supreme Court ruled that this did not amount to state establishment of religion. In fact, the only reason why 90% of vouchered students ended up in church-sponsored schools was the refusal by Cleveland’s suburban divisions to accept inner-city children. Parochial schools were the only real alternative for parents in flight from the chronic failure of some public schools to impart the learning that is their children’s best chance to escape poverty. The Supreme Court’s decision will mean the adoption of voucher systems where the public system hasn’t delivered the goods.

Prominent among the supporters of school choice in the United States are African-Americans, because they see good education as the ticket out of the ghettoes. The discrimination against the poor that vouchers attempt to remedy directly translates into ethnic bias, because visible minorities tend to be poorer on average than the descendants of Europeans. In Canada, the poorest tend to be aboriginal, and it is that community that suffers the most from restrictions on school choice.

Those who oppose increased school choice argue that low-performing public schools will shrink and eventually close if their patrons are allowed to access more successful venues. Even if this were true, what is the problem? If a school is not doing an effective job of educating students and is not willing or able to change, then it should be shut down.

However, in places with expansive school choices, this has not been the case. Denmark, for example, has effectively had a voucher system since 1849 whereby parents receive funding to send their children to the school of their choice. During the 1980s the numbers of parents choosing independent schools shot up by 50%. As expected, public schools responded by improving the quality of their education. Now, less than 15% of parents in Denmark choose to send their children to independent schools. The same thing happened in Edmonton because the government of Alberta allowed the option of charter schools. In response, the Edmonton school board encouraged its schools to innovate in curricula and standards, and they underwent what has been described as a renaissance. No more charters were needed; just tolerating other choices spurred the public system to improve itself.

Expanding the Schools of Choice Act to allow full access to all other schools is the next logical step for Manitoba. Full tuition vouchers for core area children would eliminate the built-in bias against the poor, and by extension against visible racial minorities including aboriginal children. Our two-tier education system advantages the rich and disadvantages the poor.

Real school choice would end this.