In Defence of Choice and Competition: Vouchers and Charter Schools

Education reform is typically a controversial and polarizing issue. Student performance is falling below the national average in some provinces such as Newfoundland and Labrador, however, and the rationale for reforming the public education system seems clearer than ever. Yet, revisiting how provincial governments deliver education does not necessarily mean creating more government programs and more bureaucratic red tape. Instead, there are two alternative reform paths that will be the topic of discussion in this article: vouchers and charter schools.

By definition, a school voucher is a funding certificate issued by the government to parents who wish to enroll their child in a private school or, in some jurisdictions, who choose to homeschool their children. The values of these vouchers typically reflect the cost of educating a student at a public school. They reduce barriers that prevent parents from sending their children to privately-owned institutions, which may provide higher-quality education or education programs that are more suitable for their children’s needs. Critics of school vouchers argue that they force public schools to compete with private schools and that the diversion of funds away from the former results in lower-quality education for those who cannot afford a private alternative. Yet, while it is true that implementing a school voucher system would force public schools to compete with private schools, several studies indicate that student performance improved in jurisdictions wherein competition is rife.

Another alternative is that of the charter school system. Charter schools are publicly-funded, privately-operated autonomous schools operated by groups of educators and parents. These schools feature flexible curricula and offer unique educational programs, but they must demonstrate that their programs are different from what other schools offer and they must be held accountable to the provincial government.

Since elected officials in Alberta enacted the School Amendment Act in 1994, charter schools have played an important role in the province’s education system. And, like the implementation of a voucher system, the charter school system has demonstrated the value of competition and choice. One study indicates that charter schools have been better equipped to advance student learning and another study argues that the success of Alberta’s charter school experiment should be the rationale for expanding it.

In reviewing the successes of both the school voucher system and Alberta’s charter school experiment, it becomes increasingly evident that competition-driven reforms that emphasize individual choice deserve the attention of elected officials in Atlantic Canada, particularly in Newfoundland and Labrador. Parents could then decide what school will best meet the needs of their children and public schools would have an incentive to improve student performance outcomes by developing more effective curricula. Indeed, a rising tide lifts all boats.

Devin Drover is an AIMS on Campus Student Fellow who is pursuing an undergraduate degree in economics at Memorial University. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies

The Freedom of Disassociation

The freedom to associate – that is, the liberty of association protected under Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms–is the individual right to participate, and, by extension, abstain, from any group of choice. This right is a central tenet of democracy, as it protects citizens’ rights to form political parties, interest groups, labour unions, etc., which represent their members’ interests.

Contemporarily, the right of organization is primarily a labour issue and union rights, collective bargaining, and other labour-related issues are at the forefront of this discussion. For example, the Supreme Court used Section 2 to uphold collective bargaining as a constitutional right in the 2007 British Columbia Health Services case. However, while the Supreme Court upholds the freedom to associate with unions, there have been serious Section 2 infringements in Canada regarding the ability to disassociate with unions. Most collective agreements require all workers to join the union at their respective workplace. The Supreme Court upheld this feature on several occasions, such as the aforementioned British Columbia Health Services case and the Quebec Advance Cutting and Coring case in 2001, where the Court upheld the requirement in that province’s construction industry.

Another barrier to the freedom of association comes via the Rand Formula, which the Supreme Court posited in the 1940s. Following its suggestion, several provinces enshrined this formula into law. It requires that all workers in a unionized workplace pay dues to the union, regardless of their relationship with it. In other words, workers must pay for the labour union, regardless of whether they agree with its actions or principles.

These rulings are disturbing insofar as they infringe on the ability of workers to leave their union without leaving their occupation. Although protecting the freedom of individuals to associate with certain groups is important, the other side of it must be the ability to disassociate from them–and unions should be no exception. Correcting this problem requires implementing right-to-work legislation, which would allow workers to leave their union if they are unhappy, while also keeping their job.

Critics of right-to-work legislation often suggest that it will weaken unions. Where this argument falls short, however, is that several developed democracies do not have mandatory union membership. Australia, for example, does not require union membership, yet the labour union density remains nearly 18 per cent and retains a strong presence in many industries, such as education, healthcare, utility services, transportation, etc.

Ultimately, protecting the freedom of association is important for a properly functioning democracy. However, it must go both ways, which entails the right to both join and leave any group. Unions ought not to be exempt from this principle. The provinces should introduce right-to-work legislation as a means of protecting the freedom of association, not because it will weaken unions.

Randy Kaye is a 2013-2014 Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ Student Fellow. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the Institute