Study Shows Choice Benefits [Canadian] Public Schools

Published February 1, 2000

Just two months before the National Commission on Governing America’s Schools called for more school choice in the U.S. public education system, a Vancouver-based think-tank had issued a similar call for “public vouchers, private vouchers, and charter schools” to reform Canada’s troubled public school system.

What is notable about the study, issued by The Fraser Institute last September, is that it uses international evidence to support the case for school choice, including evidence from school choice experiments in the United States.

From the description of the Canadian public school system provided in the report, The Case for School Choice: Models from the United States, New Zealand, Denmark, and Sweden, it appears that public education north of the border shares many of the problems experienced by its U.S. counterpart. Despite a variety of reforms over the past 30 years, student achievement has remained stagnant: 27 percent of Canadian adolescents drop out of high school without a diploma, and 33 percent of those that do graduate high school are functionally illiterate.

“Canadians are spending three times more on public education, in real terms, than they were thirty years ago,” notes the report’s author, Claudia Rebanks Hepburn, an education policy analyst with the Institute. “But despite smaller classes and better paid, more highly educated teachers, Canadian students are achieving less than their parents’ generation did.”

Since more money has not made a difference, a new strategy is called for, says Hepburn, and that strategy is school choice. While she recognizes that the concept is new to Canada, she points out that it has proven successful in other countries. Her study finds that wherever they have been introduced, voucher programs and charter schools have produced substantial improvements in student learning and parental satisfaction.

More significantly, Hepburn finds that the implementation of school choice makes schools more responsive to concerns expressed by parents and leads to a more dynamic, innovative, and equitable education system. The international evidence suggests the need for a fundamental change to public education: Government should be responsible for funding and facilitating public education, but not necessarily for supplying it.

Charter Schools

Hepburn reports that charter schools in both the United States and New Zealand have won the support of principals, teachers, and parents. Students in charter schools are making greater academic progress than their peers, largely because charter schools are more mission-focused and more responsive to student needs.


Vouchers have made school choice a reality for the poorest families in Denmark, New Zealand, Sweden, and the United States. While most vouchers are publicly funded, Hepburn reports that privately funded voucher programs in the United States are demonstrating significant benefits for low-income students.

According to Hepburn, voucher programs have demonstrated three facts about education:

  • A significant minority of lower-income families jump at the chance to take their children out of schools that are not meeting their needs.
  • Students who use vouchers demonstrably learn more than they would have in their previous public school.
  • Public schools respond to vouchers by improving the quality of the programs they provide to the children who do not use vouchers.

“The children must come first, not the system itself or a deficient conception of public education,” says Hepburn.

Her review of the Danish public education system emphasizes this view. The Danes believe that parental authority over education is paramount, and that a truly democratic system of government-run education would be impossible without a range of independent, publicly funded alternatives. They also believe that having a free choice of schools serves to “further the schools’ initiative and industry.”

“The Danish concept of public education differs fundamentally from that established by Luther and Calvin in the first European ‘public’ school systems and imitated by the Puritans, who established the first American ‘public’ schools,” notes Hepburn. “The religious founders of ‘public education’ in most western countries sought to remove parental control from the education process in order to propagate adherence to a single system of beliefs. The notion that children’s education should be determined not by their parents but by the state is still held by the educational establishment in most Western countries, including Canada.”

For more information …

The Fraser Institute’s September 1999 report, The Case for School Choice: Models from the United States, New Zealand, Denmark, and Sweden, is available on the Internet at