Will choice and vouchers make Alberta education better?

Jason Kenney and the UCP have been pushing the idea that choice in education and healthcare will lead to lower costs and better outcomes.

But is it true?

First up, in this piece I’m going to be taking a look at education.

There are two key pieces that the UCP have been pushing in their policies and rhetoric; choice in education and the potential introduction of a voucher system.

Choice in education is simple – parents make a decision about the type of education they want their children to receive and what type of delivery.

Whether that’s a traditional publicly funded school, a publicly funded Catholic education, a private charter/ for profit school, or home schooling.

Catholic education is ingrained in Alberta’s constitution, but that document is a living document and can be amended. Other provinces have done so when trying to secularize and when faced with trying economic times, recognizing that with scarce resources, duplication of infrastructure, administration, transportation, and shrinking student populations and tax bases – they are unsustainable.

Rural Alberta and some mature urban neighbourhoods have been faced with the prospect of school closures as the communities they serve no longer support the infrastructure present.

The UCP’s proposed solution to this is to fragment the student population even further by introducing support for more religious and fringe educational options.

One way that’s been proposed to fund this is to introduce a “voucher system” essentially a government backed coupon that parents can use to determine where their student would be sent and the dollars the government would normally allocate to that student would follow them.

The voucher system started in the US as a means to try and improve educational attainment for students in low income areas and students of colour. The idea was that by providing flexibility for students to leave an underperforming public school they would be able to access better education.

Has it worked? Research is mixed, and most studies show there has been no marginal improvement in academic outcomes vs. students who stayed in public schools, and two recent studies actually show that outcomes may be worse.

But, in Alberta, this isn’t even what’s being proposed. What’s being proposed is that students of all socio-economic backgrounds would have access to these vouchers.

Coupled with the UCP move to remove caps on charter schools – that don’t even have to adhere to Alberta Education curriculum standards, this is a back door to allow more theocratic and fundamentalist education to be publicly funded, under the guise of enhancing academic outcomes.

This also serves as a covert means to subsidize wealthy families who choose to send their students to elite private academies with high tuitions that remain otherwise out of reach of the average middle-class family.

Private schools/charter schools may also have foundational beliefs that don’t align with human rights and charter of rights standards.

What does a young trans student do when their only option is a religious based program? What do same sex parents do when the only accessible program for their child is one that would teach their child their family is an abomination? Should an Indigenous family be faced with sending their student to a school operated by the church that was complicit in the residential school system?

As mentioned before, a few jurisdictions have moved to consolidate their educational systems to a unified public system.

In 1997, both Quebec and Newfoundland made constitutional amendments to end publicly funded religious education, with Newfoundland voters choosing to implement a non-denominational system in a referendum.

With additional public funds propping up private and religious schools that have other revenue sources, be it from tuition or their churches, these schools are at an advantage over purely non-denominational institutions.

Competition for top teaching talent then creates the probability of a weakened public education system that puts quality education out of reach of those who don’t have access or the financial means to pay as much as $20,000+ in annual tuitions.

If the government is looking at a way to bring spending in line with other comparator provinces like BC and Quebec, one way they could do that is to amalgamate education choice under one centrally managed and administered school system.

A report commissioned by the Public School Board Association of Alberta conservatively estimates that $273 million per year could be saved on administrative and operating costs by doing so.

Freeing up that amount of capital that could be redeployed towards teachers and educational assistants, as well as resources for students would greatly enhance the quality of instruction.

Watering down the bench strength of our publicly funded system is not the way to develop a more robust educational system.

There is no evidentiary support for a voucher system or system duplication/fragmentation. It is merely a thinly veiled attempt to broaden the role the UCP’s fundamentalist and theocratic supporters play in delivering education by giving them a fiscal and competitive edge that won’t be afforded to those who would benefit from it most.

Robbie Kreger-Smith is a consultant for restaurants, communications, and marketing with previous partisan political experience in Alberta.

Connect: @RKSAlberta

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