Education reformers in the United States recently have been arguing whether parental choice is a sufficient force in and of itself to transform public education.
To refocus the debate, they could look to the Maritime Provinces of Canada, where a school board member, William Forrestall of Fredericton (New Brunswick), has made the case that choice is not just an effective engine of reform but in fact a fundamental human right protected by international conventions.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, states, “parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children,” Forrestall pointed out in a February 7 analysis for The Chronicle Herald of Halifax, Nova Scotia. He cited additional international laws in support of that principle.
As to whether school choice is effective when the putative right is tested by reality, the contrast between the four Canadian provinces on the Atlantic coast (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland/Labrador) and the rest of Canada is instructive.
Atlantic Canada’s education outcomes consistently lag those in the rest of Canada–most recently on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures 15-year-olds’ proficiency in reading, math, and science. What makes the difference, Forrestall says, is that publicly funded school choice has become the norm in all provinces west of the Maritimes, while Atlantic Canada has remained mired in monopolistic practices.
Perhaps the Atlantic region’s problem is that it has taken its cue too much from the colossus to the south:
“Internationally, Canadian-style choice-based funding is being increasingly cited for the remarkable success of most Canadian students, when compared to the dismal outcomes of the American melting-pot monopoly model,” Forrestall wrote. “Unfortunately, Atlantic Canada has adopted the American-style funding model–and for our students, tragically similar outcomes.
“Funded school choice is the democratic norm not only in most of Canada, but worldwide. With the exception of the U.S., virtually all healthy democratic societies fund school choice–even the former Soviet Union does so,” Forestall noted. “The result of such funding for most Canadians is both real choice for all students and, very importantly, a public school management culture that effectively responds to the competitive pressures of choice-driven school systems.”
According to Forrestall, most Canadian provinces provide vouchers that parents can redeem to pay tuition at a school of choice. The amount ranges from $2,849 in British Columbia to $5,038 in Saskatchewan. Most private schools charge fees within that range, thereby making the right to funded choice a reality.
In the United States, there have been some breakthroughs for school choice, such as the voucher programs for needy children in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and the District of Columbia; the establishment of more than 3,000 public charter schools; vouchers for special-needs children in Arizona, Florida, and Utah; and private scholarships generated by tax credits in half-a-dozen states.
However, the public education establishment’s ability to snuff out broad-based initiatives, such as the universal vouchers enacted by the Utah Legislature last year, has caused soul-searching within the choice movement.
In the winter issue of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, veteran choice advocate Sol Stern authored a thought-provoking piece titled “School Choice Isn’t Enough.” While continuing to favor choice, Stern argued the emphasis should shift to mandating a rigorous curriculum, as Massachusetts has done.
The quality of the curriculum is undoubtedly important, but one problem with top-down mandates is that they are subject to change according to which way the political winds are blowing. Today’s mandate for the use of phonics in reading can be repealed by tomorrow’s regime mandating a return to look-say.
This process comes down to government officials issuing orders to the education bureaucracy, with families being stuck with whatever happens to be the order of the day, and how it may be interpreted.
As the Canadian experience suggests, true change comes when public money follows the students, as schools must respond to market forces. Given the chance, most parents will move their kids from bad schools to good ones simply because most parents want the best for their children.
That is more than just common sense, as Forrestall has reminded us. It is an internationally recognized human right.
Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.