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:
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:
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.