Let people closest to the ground decide education policy

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Appeared in the Epoch Times, April 26, 2023
Let people closest to the ground decide education policy

All students deserve a quality education, regardless of where they live. However, it would be a mistake to assume this only happens when all students attend the same type of school. School choice is a strength, not a weakness, in our country.

Much of this flexibility stems from the Constitution, which explicitly gives the provinces jurisdiction over education. The federal government has no say over school board governance, teacher certification standards or curriculum requirements. Moreover, Ottawa doesn’t provide any funding to the provinces for K-12 education, resulting in minimum influence and interference by Ottawa. Each province is free to chart its own course.

This explains why there’s significant variation from province to province. For example, as noted in a new study published by the Fraser Institute, independent schools are far more popular in British Columbia than in Newfoundland and Labrador where nearly 98 per cent of students attend public (government) schools compared to only 86 per cent in B.C., which in turn has the highest percentage of independent school enrollment (13.2 per cent) followed by Quebec (11.7 per cent). It’s important to note that Quebec and B.C. (along with Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta) provide partial funding to independent schools, which makes it easier for parents to choose this option.

However, it's also important to acknowledge that when provinces fund independent schools, they do so based on enrollment. Thus, it’s more accurate to say that money follows the student, since independent schools only receive funds if parents choose to send their children there. Clearly, independent schools meet an important need for many families and should remain available as an option.

Interestingly, Ontario does not provide funding for independent schools yet has a higher percentage (6.9 per cent) of independent school enrollment than Alberta (4.3 per cent) and Saskatchewan (2.8 per cent), which partially fund independent schools. Why? Maybe because Ontario has fewer regulations for establishing independent schools than any other province, which suggests that excessive regulation can discourage the vitality of independent schools as much as a lack of funding.

Alberta stands out as the province with the most school choice. Not only does it have both public and separate (Roman Catholic) school systems along with independent schools, it’s also the only province that allows charter schools. Despite popular misperception, charter schools are not independent schools but rather autonomous, not-for-profit schools within the public system.

Charter schools have proven to be quite successful. Some charter schools, such as Foundations for the Future Charter Academy in Calgary, provide a traditional back-to-basics approach while others, such as Boyle Street Education Centre in Edmonton, focus on alternative programs targeting at-risk youth. The province’s recent decision to lift the cap on charter schools means the number of these schools—and the number of students enrolled in them—will continue to grow.

Of course, not all students are enrolled in school. Parents in every province are legally entitled to educate their children at home, and a small but growing percentage are choosing to do just that. Three provinces—B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan—even offer limited funding towards the cost of home schooling. Alberta has the highest percentage of families (1.9 per cent) who choose home school.

Clearly, there’s a lot of diversity in Canada’s educational landscape. No doubt some politicians would like to nationalize education or at least require provinces to follow national educational standards. While this might be appealing to some, it would not be good for students or their parents. We’ve learned over the years that cookie-cutter approaches to education rarely work. It makes sense to let the people closest to the ground be the ones to decide on education policy. At a bare minimum, this means respecting the constitutional rights of provinces in this area.

However, we can go further and say that provinces should prevent government bureaucrats from centralizing education. Ideally, choices should be made at the local level, with parents having significant control over the type of education their children receive. School choice is a strength in Canada. When it comes to choosing what works best for children, parents should have as many options as possible.