Atlantic Canada parents deserve more school choices for their children

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Appeared in the Charlottetown Guardian

There is no question that a great education is essential to success in the 21st century. Completing high school, for example, markedly reduces the chances of unemployment or the probability of remaining trapped in low-income jobs.

The importance of education to a child’s future success explains the increasing interest on the part of parents, and therefore politicians, in ensuring not only a functioning but thriving education system. Supporting parents in choosing their children’s education and fostering competition between schools is vital to such efforts.

Evidence continues to mount on the broad benefits of parents having educational choices for their children and the competition between schools that this implies. Going back to ground-breaking work completed by then Harvard professor Caroline Hoxby in the early 1990s through to research published in 2014, the findings increasingly show that empowering parents and forcing schools to compete benefits students, the broad education system including public schools, the broader economy, and even teachers themselves.

In Atlantic Canada, some school choice exists though it is severely limited in comparison to the other six provinces. Parents can send their children to public schools where the language of instruction is in English or French. That is pretty much the limit of funded school choice. In addition, non-funded options such as independent schools exist as does home schooling.

The result is that in Atlantic Canada, a massive concentration of students are in either English or French public schools—97 per cent in Nova Scotia, and just under 99 per cent in New Brunswick, Newfoundland & Labrador, and Prince Edward Island.

It’s worth noting, however, that of the four Atlantic provinces, New Brunswick offers a greater degree of choice for parents and competition for schools in the form of a more developed public Francophone system. Indeed, more than one-in-four students in New Brunswick attend a public non-religious Francophone school. The comparable rates in Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island are 0.4 per cent, 3.1 per cent, and 3.7 per cent, respectively.

In contrast, Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Alberta all provide much greater choice and competition than Atlantic Canada within the public system. For example, in Ontario’s public education system, just over 63 per cent of enrolled students are in an Anglophone public school. The remaining students in the public system are enrolled in public French (1.1 per cent), Catholic English (27.1 per cent), or Catholic French (3.2 per cent).

Saskatchewan and Alberta similarly provide religious-based, largely Catholic education within the public system. So, depending on your province and city, you could have up to five public schools competing for students in provinces like Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.

In addition, Alberta augments its public system with charter schools, autonomous, not-for-profit schools within the public system. They are different than public schools in that they have more flexibility in setting curriculum, and hiring and firing teachers. (That might explain why, by one estimate, there are 8,000 students on a waiting list to attend one of Calgary’s six charter schools.) Also, Alberta is the province that offers the most support of any province, giving parents resources, funding, and helping facilitate mechanisms for home schooling.

The result of choice in such provinces means the proportion of students enrolled in just English or French non-religious public schools ranges from just under 65 per cent in Ontario to about 71 per cent in Alberta and 77 per cent in Saskatchewan. The rest are in a variety of the other options just noted, which itself signifies one critical aspect of school choice—when available, parents are more likely to send their child to the school they think will work best for their child.

Parental choice in education, which necessitates competition between schools, is a central, required element of a well-functioning, productive education system. The provinces of Atlantic Canada can do more to offer parents this educational choice by learning lessons from other Canadian provinces.

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