Within Canada’s federal system, education remains a matter of provincial policy, and a wide degree of variation exists across the country. With particular concern for the options available to parents and their level of taxpayer funding, the Fraser Institute has prepared a detailed comparison, “Measuring Choice and Competition in Canadian Education.”
The classical liberal policy institute based in Vancouver, British Columbia, released the 52-page report on Thursday, and the authors state their conviction up front: “education is broadly improved when parents have choice and schools are forced to compete.”
With this starting point, and with all 10 provinces included — only the territories are absent — they place Alberta first with “the greatest degree of school choice in Canada.” Atlantic Canada, on the other hand (New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland), offers “comparatively little parental choice and competition among schools.”
The diversity makes categorization difficult, but the authors divide the options into three: public (fully taxpayer funded and government regulated), independent, and homeschooling. They include fully funded charter schools, language alternatives, and various religious schools in the “public” category, and between 87.5 percent (British Columbia and Quebec) and 98.8 percent (Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island) of students attend public schools.
While homeschooling is legal in all the provinces and has become more widespread in the past 20 years, few Canadian families engage in this approach. Alberta is the only one that funds it, with CAN$1,641 per homeschooled student, and its level is still only 1.6 percent. Most of the remaining provinces have 0.5 percent or fewer students in homeschooling programs (pictured), and for this reason the authors describe it as merely “the threat of competition.”
Alberta is also the only province with charter schools — eight, to be exact, and with a waiting list of 8,000 prospective students. These operate with somewhat-loosened restrictions to invite entrepreneurship, although they remain “nonprofit.”
Robert Murray, the Edmonton-based vice president of research with the Frontier Centre — a policy institute on the prairies — contends that “the funding of charter schools and homeschooling is further proof that the Alberta government believes in the value of competition.” He also has no doubt that what competition is available “makes the education systems in Canadian provinces better.”
The role of funding presents a particular challenge for the authors, since even the “independent” schools receive up to 80 percent of their funding from taxpayers. Further, while the authors support taxpayer funding for homeschooling and charter schools, they acknowledge the tension within of their “choice” preference, since the funding perpetuates the government’s regulatory hand and tax burden:
“Independent schools in these provinces [where they remain unfunded] enjoy more autonomy with respect to provincial regulations,” they write. On the other hand, “Independent schools in provinces where funding is provided must comply with provincial guidelines on curriculum and other regulations applied to public schools.”
Murray also raises this concern in Alberta, as he notes “strict requirements in meeting Ministry standards in these cases, and there is a firm governmental cap on the number of Charter schools.” He also points out that “there is only so much money to go around,” and wider funding means less “focused on the public school system, [which] would be even better than [it] already [is].”
The Fraser authors explain their dim view of education options in the Atlantic provinces on account of “less choice within the public system and … no support to parents for independent schools.” These provinces have very low homeschooling and the highest rates of conventional public school attendance in the nation. Nova Scotia is the lowest of the four with 97 percent public school enrollment, while the others are at 98 percent (p.25 PDF).
Ben Eisen of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies in Halifax, Nova Scotia, hopes that the report “prompts policymakers in Atlantic Canada to examine practices in jurisdictions that fared better.” He says the big problems are waste and poor results:
“All across Canada, education costs have been increasing significantly in recent years, despite a decrease in the number of students. Meanwhile, there is little evidence that public education spending growth is producing measurably better outcomes.”
Eisen advocates “parent-controlled funding,” and the implication is that a “better approach would be to put more resources in the hands of parents, and let them choose the school — public or private — that best suits their child.… If parents control the resources and can send children wherever they choose, good schools will see enrollment grow, and bad schools will either find a way to improve or see enrollment drop.”