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

On Charter Schools

Charter schools are becoming a popular alternative to North America’s public school system and their rising popularity is largely a result of affording parents greater jurisdiction over their children’s education.

The Province of Alberta defines charter schools as publicly funded independent schools that provide education in an enhanced or “customized” manner compared to the public school system. Chartered schools in Alberta operate under five-year agreements that require them to follow a provincial curriculum, hire certified teachers, and operate not-for-profit. Before each five-year agreement, the Minister of Education reviews the school’s performance to ensure that it is meeting provincial requirements.

This system utilizes market-oriented principles to regulate charter school performance, which compels them to act in the most efficient manner possible. They must guarantee equitable access and ensure that students receive quality education or risk losing their charter. Since they receive public funds, charter schools must also adhere to the same enrolment policies as public schools, therefore, allowing students equal access, as opposed to private schools, which are substantially more expensive and “discriminatory.” The government funds them by allocating per-student funds to each charter school, as well, which results in a net balance of expenditures (and, often times, much less, since charter schools typically receive less funding per student than public schools).

There are currently several jurisdictions in the United States that “charter” schools, however, Alberta is the only province in Canada to provide similar opportunities. They could serve an important role in the rest of the country, especially in Atlantic Canada, and ought to receive more consideration given their successful performance in the United States. These schools have greater flexibility in how they choose to educate their students. For instance, some schools focus explicitly on science and technology or mathematics, however, the point is that parents and school administrators can discuss how best to improve educational delivery.

The Centre for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University recently completed a report on the quality of charter schools in 25 states, the District of Columbia, and New York City (separated from the rest of New York State due to its size). The report, titled, “The National Charter School Study,” found that charter schools fared better when compared to their public counterparts. Particularly, charter school students surpassed public school students in reading comprehension and mathematical competency. The study also indicates that charter schools benefit low-income, disadvantaged, and special needs students.

Although charter schools represent only one option for improving education in Canada, they deserve serious consideration. In the past, some groups, such as the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and the Fraser Institute, have tried to spark a debate about education by providing education rankings, yet, politicians and public school officials criticized them severely. Education is an important societal pillar and discussing how to improve it is tremendously important. This is precisely why provincial governments need to consider alternative policies for educating students–particularly charter schools, which have a proven record of accomplishment.

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