Public education dollars need not be restricted to public education monopoly

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Appeared in the Calgary Herald

In a liberal democracy, where critical thinking is often touted as an end goal in education, it was disappointing to read Calgary MLA Kent Hehr’s attack on parental choice in education (“Private schools divide pupils by wealth and religion,” July 26).

Hehr’s arguments ignore the benefits of school choice and the underlying reality about how human beings function. He thus overlooks why choice is invaluable in education—because it leads to human flourishing.

By not going deeper, Hehr, also the provincial Liberal Party’s education critic, thus repeated the tired and misleading clichés about independent schools. They’re for rich kids and religious kooks (although Hehr is too polite to phrase it that way).

The concern over faith is misplaced. The point of a free society is to ensure diverse viewpoints are protected and encouraged—even when others disagree, especially in the education system, lest stultifying non-critical thinking become the norm.

Hehr is also wrong on the facts. He fails to consider the research evidence that non-government schools provide solid, and in some cases exemplary, academic, social and cultural results for individuals and for society.

A 2013 OECD analysis of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) math performance scores found that Canadian 15 year-olds from private schools significantly outperformed their peers from public schools. This was true even after controlling for economic, social and cultural status.

A 2012 study by Cardus compared graduate outcomes for Canadian adults from different school systems—public, separate Catholic, and various independent school systems. The findings were clear. Graduates from independent schools are significantly more likely than their peers to contribute to civic society— to vote, volunteer, and donate.

Furthermore, parents don’t just “feel”–as Hehr claims—that the public system isn’t good enough for them. In a 2007 Ontario survey on why parents choose private schools and in a 2009 analysis of stories told by parents about choosing private schools, many reported that they tried public schools for their children but were forced to look elsewhere.

They leave public schools for a variety of reasons: bullying, lack of teacher care or availability, concerns with the curriculum, neglect of their child’s special needs, or poor academic results. And many stay with a private school once they arrive because of caring and attentive teachers, positive academic performance, safety, and improvements in their child’s social life.

Hehr argues that any education spending for independent schools misdirects “government resources.”

Such “government resources” are also known as the tax dollars of every parent.  And Hehr asserts their money can only be spent on so-called “public” institutions.

If that same standard were applied elsewhere in government, welfare recipients would be forbidden from spending their taxpayer-funded income at private grocery stores—only government outlets (if such stores actually existed).

The point, of course, is not private or public provision but to ensure that everyone has an abundance of food to eat or is abundantly educated, regardless of who provides the food or the education.

Hehr, and other like-minded allies, ignore the effect of monopolies on human behaviour and on the service to be delivered: little innovation, sub-par service, few reasons to improve, and the misallocation of resources.

For example, extra education tax dollars are often funnelled to people entrenched in the system, without improving the quality of education. The 2007 special payment of $1.2 billion into the Teachers’ Pension Plan in Alberta to make up for yet another shortfall is a perfect example.

Hehr needs to think more carefully about how governments can create educational equity. It makes sense to recognize the results achieved in independent schools.  When local communities are given more control--whether independent or charter schools, home-based educational programs, or public schools given more local authority-- administrators, parents and teachers can achieve excellent results, results that benefit individuals and society.

A system where all taxpayer dollars are spent on one provider, the “public” system, and not among the schools that parents choose, would be rejected as absurd and unhelpful if we were talking about welfare payments and grocery stores. It’s only in education—and regrettably, the mind of a provincial politician— where, despite evidence to the contrary, political attachment to monopoly thrives.