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

On School Vouchers: Responsive and Vibrant Education

Education should grant students’ knowledge about the universe, prepare them for their professional lives, and satisfy their human curiosity. Any education system that sets out to achieve these objectives, however, must be responsive to the demands of the students it serves.

School vouchers are one solution for increasing the responsiveness of schools. In voucher systems, the state funds private and public education by giving taxpayers the option of choosing to reclaim the government’s per-pupil-expenditure, per child, in the form of a ‘voucher,’ which can then be spent on public schooling alternatives, such as private schools, homeschooling, boarding school, etc.

In Sweden, for instance, students are free to attend independent schools that receive funding based on their number of enrollees. These schools are not permitted to select students based on their academic performance and instead utilize a ‘first come, first serve’ admission policy. Furthermore, these schools cannot charge fees in excess of the voucher.

Although there is no consensus on the most optimal path of implementation, proponents of the voucher system argue that adopting them would introduce competition into the education system, promoting experimental teaching methods and democratizing education. I believe that moving toward the Swedish model could achieve these outcomes in Canada.

First, the voucher system creates incentives for schools to improve. Unlike Canada’s public education system, which assigns students to particular institutions, vouchers compel pupils (and their parents) to choose from a variety of competing schools. To attract new students from the public system, for instance, independent schools would need to offer superior services at a comparable cost. Furthermore, public schools would also need to compete or face the risk of losing enrollees (and, thus, funding).  In order to stay afloat, therefore, public schools would have to lower costs or improve standards.

Second, voucher systems allow for greater educational innovation. Canada’s current system, on the contrary, prevents innovation in two ways: 1) requiring government approval (which is burdensome) and 2) standardization.

Public schools take orders from their respective Departments of Education and, thus, cannot significantly alter their composition without government decree. Independent schools, however, retain the ability to tweak their policies in response to perceived problems and opportunities in a freer fashion.

While it is true that public education systems can still be innovative, the rate of innovation is much slower (for the reasons listed above). It is more difficult, for instance, to implement new policies throughout an entire province than at an independent school (of which there are many, thus increasing the level of experimentation and innovation).

Finally, implementing a voucher system would democratize education. Canadian schools are accountable to their respective provincial governments, which are (in essence) accountable to the electorate. Because of this indirectness, though, it is much harder for students and their parents to demand change at their respective institutions.

The voucher system, therefore, reinforces accountability. Furthermore, by eschewing bureaucratization and standardization, independent schools can respond to their own problems directly. They are also more likely to respond to students and their parents because, as in any business venture, consumers can ‘vote with their feet’ and leave if they are unsatisfied. In this way, the Canadian system can benefit by introducing a voucher system that obliges schools to act accountable toward their students, while also being responsive to changing problems, attitudes, and technologies.

Nevertheless, adopting this system would be politically difficult in any jurisdiction. Politicians, however, should at least consider the idea, for the sake of students.

Michael Sullivan 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