School Choice in Alberta and B.C.

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

Quick fixes to public policy problems are often denounced as simplistic, but some simple principles can translate into large benefits for ordinary people. Our public schools are one example. Experience in other places indicates that a simple policy of expanded school choice can boost performance substantially.

Alongside healthcare, no other public industry is hampered more by the corrosive effects of monopoly. In Manitoba, we do not test children rigorously to find out whether they are learning adequately, but what slim evidence exists indicates that the slide in public school quality and results continues apace, especially in the challenged inner-city core.

A new Frontier Centre paper – School Choice: A Policy Whose Time Has Come – explores the opening of the school market in Alberta and British Columbia, and what preliminary test results are saying about its effects. It describes how and by what means a few individual schools have succeeded in breaking out of the “one size fits all” model. Charter schools, funded publicly but autonomous of school boards, have been particularly successful.

These snapshots provide striking evidence that increased diversity in public school formats – and expanded parental choice in deciding what model and curriculum best suits each child – deliver immediate increases in student achievement. Here are a few of the details, as measured by Alberta’s rigorous program of standardized tests:

  • Students at the Aurora Charter School, operating in Edmonton since 1996, are on average outperforming other public schools in Alberta and other local schools by margins that range between three and eighteen percent in language arts and mathematics, depending on grade level. By the time pupils reach its top level, Grade Nine, the spread is between ten and fifteen percent. The school’s waiting list stands at 660.
  • Children who attend the Foundations for the Future Academy, chartered in Calgary in 1997, are posting grades in Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, and Language Arts that are between ten and twenty percent higher than students in neighbouring divisions. Eighty-four percent of participating parents state they will keep their children enrolled there as long as the school stays open, and 4,400 are waiting to get in.
  • Although B.C.’s public system does not yet allow charter schools, several of its districts have responded to parental pressure by opening “traditional schools” that remain under the direct control of local boards. Described as specializing in “back to the basics,” they utilize a highly structured, teacher-directed method of instruction and have a strong focus on phonics and teach math in a sequential manner. Students are held to firm academic standards, participate in a character development program, are subject to a strict dress code and are expected to complete regular homework. Standardized tests show they have succeeded academically:

  • In Langley Fundamental School, started in the 1970s, Grade Four students scored higher than other Langley district children in Reading, Social Studies and Science by 7.2%, 5.3% and 11.5% respectively, and by a whopping 18.1% in Mathematics. In the first ten weeks of a recent school year, only three discipline cases out of a student population of 550 were referred to the principal for action, and more than 600 sit on the school’s waiting list.
  • Grade Four Students at King Traditional School in Abbotsford, which requires uniforms and rejects most modern pedagogy as untested “fads,” beat out their counterparts in other district schools by 7.3% and 6.9% in Reading and Social Studies. The school did not exist when the last round of standardized assessments in Mathematics and Science took place, but preliminary numbers show strong results in both these areas as well. Parents are camping outside for a week prior to kindergarten registration in order to enroll their children.
  • These gains are typical of what charter schools are accomplishing across the United States, 38 of which have passed enabling legislation. Successful Charter Schools, a report issued by the American Department of Education in June states: “Twelve years after the first charter school was launched, the charter school movement is now entering its adolescence. . . . [I]t is about to hit a growth spurt. That is because charter schools are enormously popular with their primary clients—parents and students—and because they are starting to show promising results in terms of student achievement.”

    Education Secretary Rod Paige attributes this to the fact that they “serve as laboratories of innovation—they can be public education’s ‘R&D’ arm. With greater autonomy than traditional public schools, and with a tendency to attract pioneering educators, they can try out new approaches to education that, if proven effective, can be transplanted back into the larger public education system.”

    More choice also allows public schools to reflect the disparate values of an increasingly multicultural society. A study done by the American Muslim Council, for instance, found that its members rank school choice as their top political priority and one poll shows that 84% of Muslims support school choice. In Wisconsin, Illinois and Pennsylvania, voucher, tax credit and charter school programs are allowing them to seek school formats that are consistent with their values.

    A simple response to a complex problem can be the best one. More school choice means more learning.