What Ontario can learn from Betsy DeVos

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Appeared in the Ottawa Sun, October 10, 2017
What Ontario can learn from Betsy DeVos

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (pictured above) caused quite a stir this week, particularly among Ontario teacher unions, by announcing—then cancelling—a visit to Ontario public schools. The president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario said DeVos “should keep her backwards ideas out of Ontario,” with the president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation later adding that DeVos’s ideas have “no value in the Ontario education system.”

It’s shocking that professional educators are so opposed to considering different ideas and points of view. Surely when it comes to something as important as the education of our children, we should be open to alternative systems and innovations and not simply dismiss them due to a personal dislike of an individual.

DeVos is known for supporting independent schools. Supporters of independent schools are often cast as being anti-public schools. But different types of schools can exist in harmony with one another. Quebec and the four western provinces already provide partial funding to independent schools while maintaining a robust public government-run school system. These partial funding grants, which range between 35 and 80 per cent of the per-student amount provided to public schools, allow lower- and middle-class families more options if, for any reason, they decide their local public school is not the best option. Indeed, repeated research has shown that empowering parents with more choice for their children’s education tends to improve all schooling, both public and independent.

In Canada, independent schools are often characterized as catering only to the wealthy, but a recent study in British Columbia, which looked at the income levels of families who choose non-elite independent schools compared to families who choose government-run public schools, found they were nearly the same. Simply put, independent school families in B.C. don’t look much different than public school families. Funding for independent schools help families afford tuition so their children can attend schools that may otherwise be out of reach and available only to families with higher incomes.

Back in Ontario, the provincial NDP education critic recently suggested that more money be spent on public schools, implying that the observed problems in Ontario schools (for example, declining math scores) are due to a dearth of resources. This assertion stands in contrast to the reality of spending on K-12 public education in Ontario, which has increased by 7.1 billion (or 36.6 per cent) between 2005/06 and 2014/15. Even after accounting for price changes (inflation) and enrolment differences, Ontario spent 23.4 per cent more per student in 2014/15 than it did a decade prior.

It’s worth repeating that government support of independent schools is not an American idea. Ontario stands alone amongst the large provinces in Canada in refusing to assist lower- and middle-class families who prefer independent schooling for their child.

All children should be able to access a school that meets their needs and allows them to succeed, whether that’s inside or outside the public system.

Although many do not consider Betsy DeVos the best advocate for this cause, everyone with an interest in education in Ontario should be willing to open their minds beyond the status quo. And they need only look across Canada—not solely to the United States—for working examples of education alternatives and innovations.