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

Competition and Choice in Education: A Brief Opinion

The most erroneous assumption is to the effect that the aim of public education is to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence, and so make them fit to discharge the duties of citizenship in an enlightened and independent manner. Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality – H.L. Mencken 

If there is one word that summarizes P-12 education in Nova Scotia, it’s mediocrity. The newest nationwide assessments place Nova Scotia’s junior high school students below average in every subject, with particularly large gaps in mathematics and reading comprehension. For those parents who are vigilant about their children’s educationfor example, those who sang in the chorus of dissatisfaction within the 2014 Education Reviewthese rankings will not come as a surprise.

The review calls for major education reforms that “disrupt the status quo.” Outside of these consultations, however, students and their parents have limited power to shape the nature of that disruption. In addition, many potentially helpful reforms, from abolishing school boards to rewriting curricula standards, will ultimately create a new status quo with its own inherent inertia. A more effective system would be one with a set of broad objectives that encourages grassroots innovation and adaptationone that ultimately meets the demands of students and their parents. Introducing competition into Nova Scotia’s public education system, i.e. “school choice,” would help unleash a discovery process for best practice measures in such a way that could satisfy diverse learning needs and respond to varying learning abilities.

As a product of Nova Scotia’s public education system, I have firsthand experience with extraordinarily capable students who became the victim of “leveling down” under the oppressive weight of Nova Scotia’s school boards and teacher unions. Fortunately, from grades 7 to 9, I endured French Immersion and I later earned an International Baccalaureate (IB) certificate in high school. It’s an open secret that the primary benefit of French Immersion and IB certification in Nova Scotia is the separation it provides from typically classrooms in the province. Essentially, it is as if an unofficial second-tier exists for a privy minority to self-segregate into, less to upgrade than to avoid the chaos and frivolity of the academic track. In addition to being more rigorous, these programs often have smaller classroom sizes and more external scrutiny that proxy a market test.

All in all, Nova Scotia’s public education system has many victims, but so long as it’s content on being average, those in the tails of the distribution are harmed the most: namely, gifted and special needs students. Indeed, their needs are not just distinct, but in constant flux. The pseudo-second-tier classrooms may be an oasis in terms of limiting disruption, but teacher control of the classroom ought to be a baseline expectation, rather than a luxury scattered arbitrarily across the province.

Samuel Hammond is an AIMS on Campus Student Fellow who is pursuing a graduate degree in economics at Carleton University. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies