In Brief: In this article from the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, William Forrestall says school choice is a human right that is being denied in Atlantic Canada. A member of a New Brunswick district education council, he says “Atlantic Canada’s education bureaucrats’ mastery is not successful student outcomes, but protecting their monopoly funded fiefdoms from the competitive checks and balances that define education in normal democratic societies.” 

By William Forrestall

When Atlantic Canada’s school board members met last weekend for their annual convention in Halifax, they took part in the usual seminars, workshops and lectures on the region’s public education – none of which fundamentally questioned why our schools consistently fail to meet national standards.

The conference was yet another coat of white paint over some of the unusual qualities of Atlantic Canada’s outdated and unresponsive educational culture. A more forthright discussion of the real differences between Atlantic Canada’s underperforming schools and the educational success found in the rest of Canada might prove to be more valuable to improving our students’ outcomes.

Most informed observers are aware that Atlantic Canadian education has consistently failed to meet the standards found in the rest of the country. The recently released PISA international students’ assessments once again placed Atlantic Canadian students at the bottom of the education barrel. Many questions have been asked about this education pattern, but the one thing senior educational bureaucrats in the region do not want questioned is their unique monopoly over educational funding. When compared to most provinces, Atlantic Canadian education is trapped in a unique monopoly funding model, a model closely associated with administrative inefficiency and poor student outcomes.

Many Atlantic area school board members are still unaware of how unusual monopoly funding policies are, and often less aware that publicly funded school choice is the norm in all provinces west of the Maritimes. Choice-based funding is available to over 92 per cent of Canadian students, in school systems that have secured some of the best educational outcomes in the world.

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. 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. 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.

The pattern that competition brings out the best in public education is not only a Canadian observation. According to OIDEL, an international research organization in Geneva, all top performing countries in the PISA international literacy tests – Finland, Canada (93 per cent), New Zealand, Australia, Ireland and South Korea – und school choice.

Funded school choice is a well-recognized human right. The International Declaration of Human Rights states in article 26.3: “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.”

Article 2 assures choice is a right for all, not just a privilege of those who can afford tuition fees. Funded choice is further reinforced in articles 7, 18, 26, 28 and 30. The human rights law on funding choice is so well-defined that individuals “inciting discrimination” against funded school choice are violating that law (see article 7, DHR) in the same manner as if they were opposed to women voting or advocating the return of slavery.

A host of international human rights laws further protect funded school choice, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and, most importantly, the Convention against Discrimination in Education.

Most provinces fund choice using a voucher-like model that saves money while fostering responsive management in the public system: Ontario funds competing Catholic, secular and Protestant school boards; Quebec has a $3,210 voucher, Manitoba $3,381, Alberta $2,998, Saskatchewan $5,038, and British Columbia $2,849. As most independent school fees are between $3,000 and $5,000, the typical Canadian voucher assures school choice as an attainable right for all parents.

Atlantic Canada’s education bureaucrats’ mastery is not successful student outcomes, but protecting their monopoly funded fiefdoms from the competitive checks and balances that define education in normal democratic societies. Ignoring or obscuring the relationship between human rights law, funded choice and student success only preserves an outdated funding monopoly that favours bureaucratic control over student achievement.

Next time Atlantic Canadian school board members meet, a more forthright consideration of funding school choice, as found in most developed societies, might help free Atlantic education to be as responsive and effective as the rest of Canada’s.

Atlantic Canada can do better. There is an excellent case to be made that if we had adopted more progressive funding models earlier, our region would be leading the nation in student outcomes. We can do better, and so can our students.

William Forrestall is a member of the District 18 school board in Fredericton, N.B.