Money Should Follow the Student: More choice is the key to a quality education

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra

The recent Saskatchewan government decision to extend provincial funding to independent schools brings Saskatchewan in line with the practice in the three other western provinces. Saskatchewan independent schools are now eligible for funding equivalent to 50% of the provincial per-student average, provided they follow the provincial curriculum and hire certified teachers.

The recent Globe and Mail editorial criticizing this decision argued that funding independent schools emphasizes separateness rather than diversity. It raised the specter of John Tory’s disastrous 2007 election campaign pledge to fund independent Ontario schools and ominously warned that the general public is worried about any policies that appear to promote segregation.

However, such criticisms overlook the fact that some level of funding for independent schools is already well-established in Canada. Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Alberta provide 100% funding to their separate (Roman Catholic) school boards. These arrangements are entrenched in our Constitution. Combine this with the partial funding available to independent schools in British Columbia, Alberta, and Manitoba, and it is obvious that some provinces do not limit their education funding to public schools alone.

Opposition to provincial funding for independent schools tends to share three key points. The first is that many independent schools are faith-based and governments have no business funding religious organizations. The second focuses on the role public schools play in integrating their students into mainstream society and how independent schools promote segregation instead. Finally, opponents argue that since students from wealthy families are most likely to attend private schools, the policy amounts to a subsidy for the rich.

These arguments seem convincing because current funding arrangements for public, separate, and independent schools focus on funding school boards and/or individual schools. The funding arrangement shifts debate toward which school system is most worthy of public funding.

Adopting a model that lets the money follow the student would be a better way to handle the question. Letting the money follow the student moves us away from the tiresome debate about independent schools funding and puts the emphasis on the choices made by students and their parents.

Doing so would allow each student to attend any school of his or her choice, and a school’s provincial funding would then depend on the number of students who chose it, provided they follow the provincial curriculum and demonstrate that their students are learning it.

Any school that chooses to follow the provincial curriculum and receives the full public funding allocated for each student can be considered a public school, regardless of its philosophical or religious orientation. While it is important to hold all schools accountable for their academic results, it makes little sense to assume that a one-size-fits-all approach is suitable for our diverse population. Students should choose a school that best meets their needs, and providing flexibility at the local school level is important to ensuring this happens.

As for the concern about subsidizing private schooling for wealthy families, a policy of funding the student actually equalizes educational opportunities for families with limited means. It makes them the primary beneficiaries because it enables them to choose schooling options currently beyond their reach due to financial limitations.  

In the City of Edmonton, we see a good example of how this model works. More than two decades ago, the Edmonton Public School Board embarked on a revolutionary set of changes when they made choice the foundation of their approach to education. Some of the specialty schools from which to choose in Edmonton include those focusing on Aboriginal education, sports, science, the Waldorf approach, Christian education, and performing arts.

School principals in Edmonton have direct control of most of their budget, and that budget is directly correlated with the number of students who choose to attend their schools. They also have the freedom to allow their schools to specialize in various fields. In exchange, principals are held closely accountable for student achievement as measured by factors such as graduation rates, surveys, and standardized achievement tests.

While it is good to see Edmonton take the lead on these initiatives, other jurisdictions need to implement them as well.

Every province should provide funding that will follow students to whatever accredited school they attend, whether classified as public, separate, or independent.

Letting the money follow the student is an important component of ensuring everyone gets the best education possible. While Saskatchewan’s decision does not get there, its opening on funding structure brings students in that province closer to the option for greater choice.