School choice: The issue for McGuinty

Worth A Look, Education, Frontier Centre

OSSTF, Ontario’s most powerful teachers’ union, is demanding that the McGuinty government pump even more taxpayers’ money into the education system. Not to buy textbooks, develop curriculum or build new classrooms that might directly help kids, but to increase the paycheques of OSSTF members.

If additional money isn’t forthcoming, the message from the OSSTF is clear — there will be labour unrest this school year.
“Right now, frankly, we’re very concerned that school boards are not going to have enough money to meet the needs of their bargaining units who are coming to the bargaining table,” says Rhonda Kimberly-Young, president of the OSSTF.

For parents and children, the warning from the OSSTF is yet another reminder of how the teacher unions’ near-monopoly power within the public education system regularly threatens to disrupt classrooms and learning.

For the McGuinty government, the warning from the OSSTF should be a reminder that pouring vast amounts of tax dollars into the school system isn’t necessarily going to translate into a better education for kids.

Instead of continuing to placate teacher unions — which McGuinty has made a habit of over the past year — the premier should be working to tip the balance of power in the education system back to parents. One way to do that would be to provide parents with more choice in determining where their children will be able to attend school.

McGuinty could provide that choice by introducing a voucher system in the province. Parents would get yearly cheques from the government to spend on their children’s education. They could use the money for a private school, or they could continue to direct the money to a publicly funded school.

The greatest benefit of a voucher system is that it would give all parents the option of looking for a school outside the existing system. Today, that’s only possible if parents have the financial means to send their kids to a private school.

With vouchers, parents would have the chance to choose schools that would be free of strikes and lockouts. Parents could also choose schools that place a greater emphasis on academic results, curriculum and discipline. If parents weren’t satisfied with the school they chose, they could simply take their funding vouchers and go elsewhere.

Vouchers already are working well in many U.S. states. Meanwhile in this country, the only example of parents having some choice is in Alberta where groups can sponsor charter schools. Alberta’s charter schools are funded from the same pool of money as public schools, and the funding follows kids.

And charter schools are working in Alberta. A recent study found on average charter schools were 30-per-cent more effective than conventional public schools at improving student achievement on provincial language arts and math tests over a five-year period.
As well, charter schools have proven that competition is good for the overall education system, and can force public schools to provide a better education and more alternatives. The Edmonton public school board, for example, offers schools that specialize in dance, sports and Canadian studies. The Calgary public board offers an all-girls’ school.

Ontario students should have the freedom to learn and improve their skills and not be limited in choice to publicly funded schools. Vouchers can provide the means to achieve that goal.