Canada proves you don’t need a federal department of education

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Appeared in the Daily Caller, December 8, 2016

President-elect Trump’s choice for Secretary of Education—Betsy DeVos, a long-time school choice advocate—will have the power to shape federal education policy and influence state-level education policy. While Devos will likely be a strong, potentially transformative Secretary, particularly with respect to extending school choice to lower-income families, the better choice would have been to dissolve the Department of Education (DOE) altogether.

Such a suggestion is usually followed by shock if not something even more animated. Eliminating the DOE should not, however, be seen as a radical reform but rather a reasonable response to the U.S. experience since creating the department late in the Carter presidency.

One source of evidence showing why the United States doesn’t need the DOE comes from your northern neighbor, Canada. Simply put, Canada spends less on K-12 education but gets more by decentralizing education decisions to the provinces (Canada’s equivalent of U.S. states).

As a share of the economy, both Canada and the U.S. spend about the same on K-12 education, roughly 3.6 per cent of GDP (2012 data, the latest available). In dollar terms per student, the U.S. spends quite a bit more than Canada—$11,732 versus $10,224 (currencies are normalized). In other words, the U.S. spends almost 15 per cent more per student than Canada.

And what does this extra spending produce?

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is the most recognized international standardized testing, administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Every three years PISA tests 15 year olds in reading, mathematical and scientific literacy.

The most recent PISA results (2012) show Canada consistently outperforming the U.S. in all subject matters. Indeed, in both mathematics and science, the U.S. actually underperforms both Canada and the average for OECD countries, which are basically the world’s industrialized countries. Canada’s strong comparative performance to the U.S. is further supported by other international tests such as PIRLS (reading) and TIMSS (math and science).

Tellingly, Canada has no federal department of education. There’s no cabinet position or even a senior bureaucratic position dedicated to education at the federal level. The only area of involvement by the federal government in Canada in K-12 education is with First Nations education, which is broadly agreed upon as failing.

Authority and responsibility for the design, regulation and financing of K-12 education is left entirely to the provinces. The federalist design of education in Canada has meant a multitude of approaches. For example, British Columbia, Canada’s western-most province, has a provincewide, partial voucher program (covers up to 50 percent of operating costs) for students attending independent schools.

In Ontario, on the other hand, four public school systems compete with one another for students, depending on one’s school district. These include English, French, English Catholic and French Catholic. But Ontario provides no support to parents who chose to educate their children at independent schools.

Alberta, which is basically Canada’s version of Texas, pursues an all-of-the-above approach. Like Ontario it provides for multiple public school systems competing with one another as well as providing vouchers for up to 70 per cent of the operating costs of independent schools, has charter schools, and provides financial support for parents who homeschool.

The key is that the provinces are free to pursue different approaches to providing, regulating and financing education to their citizens. And hopefully they learn from one another, as is the intent of federalist political systems.

Canada’s decentralized approach to K-12 education is a lesson for the U.S. as it embarks on a period of potential sweeping reforms. While DeVos is poised to make great strides in enhancing school choice for Americans, the country would be better served following the Canadian model and begin the dismantling of the DOE.

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