Ontario Conservative leader John Tory's proposal to expand public funding of religious schools during the recent Ontario election raises some important educational issues that need to be wisely resolved in all provinces if we are to provide Canadian children with the best education in the world.
Earlier this year, under the auspices of the Fraser Institute, former Ontario premier Mike Harris and I examined data on the performance of Canadian students in international tests designed to assess their proficiency in reading, science, and combined mathematics. The data were compiled by the Program for International Assessment, a project of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Overall, Canadian students ranked sixth in reading, 13th in science and 10th in combined mathematics, with Canada ranking well above average in primary and secondary education spending per student.
What is most instructive, however, is the provincial breakdown. With respect to reading, Alberta students had the highest international score of all jurisdictions tested, with Ontario students in fifth place. In science, Alberta students placed third behind Finland and Japan, with Ontario students in 15th place. And with respect to combined mathematics, Alberta students placed second behind Hong Kong, with Ontario students in 11th place.
So what is the distinguishing feature of the Alberta educational system that accounts for these differences? It isn't per-capita spending, as Alberta's per-capita spending on education is approximately the same as Ontario's.
Alberta excels in Canadian and international education comparisons because the province provides parents with a greater range of educational choices, more "freedom to choose" the best educational alternatives for their children, and more resources to support those choices.
Alberta ensures equity and choice in K-12 education by funding independent schools and home schooling, as well as the public system. Accredited private schools receive subsidies worth approximately 60 per cent of the basic per-student grant available to public schools. Children with special educational needs who attend private schools receive the same funding as they would if they were attending public schools. Accredited independent schools also receive public funding for supervising the education of home-schooled students, while the parents of those children may receive public funding equal to approximately 16 per cent of what is spent to educate a child in the public system.
Has the provision of greater choice in education eroded the public system in Alberta? No, because constructive competition between public and independent schools strengthens both.
Charter schools have not gained a large foothold in Alberta in part because such farsighted public-school superintendents as Edmonton's Emery Dosdall responded to demands from parents and educators for new programs by encouraging them to open up new schools within the public system.
In the words of Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby: "It appears that public schools are induced to raise achievement when they are faced with competition . . . this is not only good news for students; it should be welcome news to those who think that public schools have much good potential."
Must the provision of greater freedom of choice in education lead to a plethora of off-beat educational cul-de-sacs operated by insular cultural or religious groups? Not if the province requires all educational institutions - public and private - to be accredited in accordance with clearly established educational standards and to be held publicly accountable for performance and results.
Can mixed educational systems like Alberta's be improved upon? Of course. Freedom of choice could be enhanced by providing parents with educational vouchers they could cash in at the public or private educational institution of their choosing. Accountability for results could be enhanced by greater use of report cards on schools such as those pioneered by the Fraser Institute.
The recent educational debate in Ontario was narrowly focused on whether to fund one form of alternative education, namely religious schools. The bigger issue is how to expand freedom of choice in education for all Ontario parents, while improving the performance of both public and private schools and ensuring their adherence to provincial educational standards.
The following recommendations address this larger issue. They are relevant, not only to Ontario, but to all provinces where the objective is to provide Canada's children with the best education in the world.
Fully embrace the principles of freedom of choice and accountability for results in K-12 education.
Provide a voucher worth 50 per cent of the total per-student cost of public education to parents choosing an independent education.
Support children with special needs, whose parents choose alternative education, by providing those parents with a voucher worth 75 per cent of the cost of their child's education in the public system.
Compile and publish annual report cards on all schools, holding them publicly accountable for results and adherence to provincial standards.
Preston Manning, former leader of the Reform Party, is president of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.
Making the case for parental choice
Alberta taxpayers fund private and public schools, as well as home schooling, and the winners are the students and their families