In Brief: In this op/ed in The National Post, AIMS Executive Vice President Charles Cirtwill explains why choice works in public education. He says residents of Ontario should be fighting to increase choice in their province, not encouraging a monopoly.

by Charles Cirtwill

In an op-ed in yesterday’s National Post (“Ontario needs a single secular school system”), Malcolm Buchanan and Bryan Kerman wrote that the United Nations has found the province of Ontario in violation of the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights because it funds only Roman Catholic religious schools. They point out that the UN gave Ontario two options: stop funding Catholic schools, or fund schools of all faiths. They make the case for the former, but what about the latter?

It can be argued that Ontario voters rejected this option, presented by John Tory’s Conservative party during the last provincial election. The Ontario Tories did more in two weeks to undermine Ontario’s progress to a world-class education system than the opponents of educational choice and direct accountability had been able to achieve in the previous 10 years.

How so? Because the failure of a proposal to expand choice to handpicked religious groups (a bad idea) has now opened the door for the type of attack being launched by Messrs. Buchanan and Kerman on what limited choice does exist in Ontario. If Ontarians rejected expanding choice, the argument goes, then surely they must be in support of reducing it.

If that is true (I don’t believe it is), Ontarians need to be careful what they wish for. There is a growing international literature that says when pursuing world-class education, choice works.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is now convinced of that fact. According to a report issued by the OECD last year, in “countries with both above-average student performance in science and below-average impact of socio-economic background on student performance, 80% of 15-year-olds are in schools which reported competing with one or more schools in the area for students.” Finland, Japan, Korea, Australia and, yes, Canada lead the world because of the choice structures we have in place. In that light, limiting choice in Ontario makes little sense. In fact, we should be expanding it.

Canada continues to perform well on the international stage because some of us (read Alberta and British Columbia) drag the rest of us along with them. One of the factors differentiating these heavy lifters from the rest of Canada is their far broader definition of what “public” education is. They publicly support government schools, charter schools, private schools, parochial schools and home schooling. In addition they have (like Ontario) generally open boundaries among their government schools and, in some instances, transportation arrangements (as in Edmonton’s public schools) allowing the least fortunate among us to actually take advantage of the available choice opportunities.

As for the question of human rights, according to William Forrestal, a passionate education activist in New Brunswick, 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.”

According to Mr. Forrestal, “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 in the same manner as if they were opposed to women voting or advocating the return of slavery.”

Mr. Forrestal further suggests that 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.

Is it time to put an end to Ontario’s exclusive support for a separate Catholic school system? Absolutely. Both the evidence on education outcomes and the international law on human rights support that conclusion. But should that be done by creating a single monopoly supplier of education in the province? Not if you have the best interest of the kids at heart.

Charles Cirtwill is executive vice-president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a non-partisan think-tank based in Halifax. He also heads its Education and School Re-form Initiative.