Improve Public Education Through School Choice

Commentary, Education, Matthew Lau

Last month, the Ontario government announced a new elementary math curriculum. The province will return to a “back to basics” approach aimed at improving standardized test scores, and will also introduce lessons on financial literacy and coding.

Whether these changes will improve math education remains to be seen. What is certain is that the new approach cannot be much worse than the path that Ontario’s public schools have been going down for almost two decades.

From 2003 to 2018, math scores on tests administered by the Programme of International Student Assessment, which evaluates the performance of 15-year-old students around the world, have steadily fallen in Ontario. Science test scores have similarly deteriorated, and there has also been a modest drop in reading scores.

The decline in educational outcomes, it should be noted, cannot be blamed on a lack of government spending on teachers. According to the public school boards’ financial statements, as a result of significant increases before 2015, total teacher salary costs per student, excluding benefits and after adjusting for consumer price inflation, rose by 46 percent from 2002-03 to 2017-18.

It is not a surprise that test scores have gone down while costs have gone up. Government policies help maintain a near-monopoly for the public schools and the teachers’ unions, so there is not much pressure on them to improve.

Any family that wants to send their children to a private school must pay double for education – first with their taxes, and then again for tuition. For many families, the cost is prohibitive, so they have no choice but to send their children to public schools even if they find the quality of education to be unsatisfactory.

In other jurisdictions, however, school choice policies have greatly benefited families and improved educational outcomes. For example, last month Florida significantly expanded its school voucher program, which provides a subsidy of around $7,000 per student, to help low and middle-income families send their children to a private school.

The result is that tens of thousands of families dissatisfied with the public school system have access to an alternative – a clear benefit to those families. Despite the gains it provides to low and middle-income families, however, school choice is generally met with enormous opposition from progressive circles.

A common objection – raised most loudly by public sector unions, especially teachers’ unions – is that government funding to help families afford alternatives to the public school system will weaken public education by depriving the public system of funds. Yet the evidence from Florida shows just the opposite. 

“A National Bureau of Economic Research study this year,” the Wall Street Journal recently reported, “found higher standardized test scores and lower absenteeism among students, especially low-income ones, who attended Florida public schools in areas where more students had access to private-school choice.”

Expanding access to private schools, instead of making the public schools worse, puts pressure on them to improve. Competition forced the public schools to deliver better education or else risk losing students, and therefore funding, to private schools. Competition is always better than monopoly, and the education system is no exception.

Ontario’s new math curriculum might be better than the old one, but if the provincial government really wants a proven method to achieve widespread improvements in the quality of education, it should reform the education system by providing families with more school choice.


Matthew Lau is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.