Vouchers Should be Used to Fund Education

Commentary, Education, Rodney Clifton

How do parents know if schools are good or bad?

Parents tend to evaluate schools based on how well their kids master important academic skills such as reading and writing.

How do taxpayers know if schools are good or bad?

Taxpayers are more likely to think about how money is spent and whether or not it is being wasted on ineffective programs and bloated bureaucracies.

Public school administrators, however, seem to think that spending more money is a measure of success.

Last Spring, Manitoba’s Education Minister Nancy Allan announced that the provincial grants to public school divisions would increase by 2.3 percent.  However, the 38 school divisions have increased their spending by much more than this amount.  The extra money comes from the taxes school boards levy on municipal property.  On average, municipal taxes for public schools increased from about 2.5 percent in Pembina Trails to about 7.8 percent in Brandon.

Even in Pembina Trails, a division with relatively low taxes, the school board spends its money in ways that beguile both parents and taxpayers.  For example, the cost of educating the average student increased from $8,495 in 2004-05 to $11,244 in 2011-12—a 32.4 percent increase even though the Consumer Price Index increased by only 14.0 percent.

During the same years, the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) students fell from 12,949.0 to 12,184.4, the FTE teachers fell from 802.38 to 789.65, but the FTE support staff increased from 851.61 to 897.68.  In other words, the number of students dropped by 5.9 percent, the number of teachers dropped by 1.6 percent, but the number of support staff increased by 5.4 percent.

Unfortunately, the annual report from Pembina Trails School Division does not show that increasing the costs and hiring more support staff results in better educated students.  In fact, there is almost nothing about the students’ academic achievements in the annual report.  Both taxpayers and parents should be disappointed.

With a little digging and a calculator, similar expenditures can be uncovered in other school divisions. 

To make the school divisions more accountable to parents and taxpayers, it is time to fundamentally change the way schools are funded.

First, school divisions should be funded from one source only—the provincial government—as they are in most other provinces.  In other words, divisions should be prevented from raising money through municipal taxes.  If this was done, schools would be more accountable to taxpayers and the provincial government.

Second, instead of directly funding schools, the provincial government should give parents vouchers worth about $12,000 for each of their school-aged children, which would allow them to attend any public or private school.  This would make schools more accountable to parents.

There is little doubt that parents want better education for their children and more choices in programs and schools, as illustrated in many other jurisdictions, such as the United States, that already issue school vouchers to parents.  Increasing parental choice of schools, as research by the Friedman Foundation illustrates, improves the academic performances of students.  When parents give money directly to schools—even as vouchers issued by departments of education—they are more likely to hold schools accountable.

Manitobans are familiar with vouchers as a way of paying for services because this is how the province currently funds medical services.  Medical cards are vouchers that allow Manitobans to choose the medical doctors and the labs they use.  Patients report their medical numbers to the providers, and the provincial government pays for the services.  Similarly, vouchers will work as a way of funding schools.

Next spring the Minister of Education should announce that school boards will be funded entirely by the provincial government, and not by municipal taxes, and that parents will receive vouchers to pay for their children’s education at any school of their choice.

These two changes would hold school administrators more accountable for the money they spend and the way they educate students.