By Charles Cirtwill 

HURRAY for Dawn Henwood! Not only has she made the sacrifices necessary to ensure her children get the best education, she isn’t afraid to talk about them publicly. Too many people take the step of moving their children into private schools and then forget about their old schools, doing exactly what they are accused of: turning their backs on those they leave behind.

Hurray for the proponents of public-sector schools! They swiftly and fiercely came to the defence of their schools. Their assertion that high-quality education is to be found in individual classrooms throughout their system is unassailable. Hard-working, well-trained, effective teachers can be found in just about any school in our province.

Regrettably, just about everything else they had to say was dead wrong. It is incorrect to suggest that international assessments consistently show Nova Scotia public-sector schools as delivering the best results in the world. Such a conclusion is only possible if you ignore all, or almost all, of the other Canadian provinces and every sub-national region in every other country around the globe.

As for their statements about private schools, the level of error leads me to suspect that none of them has ever darkened the door of one of Nova Scotia’s 40 private institutions. They certainly do not demonstrate any familiarity with the huge body of research into private schools. Nor do their assertions reflect the attitudes of the 4,000 children and their parents who opted out of public-sector education in this province last year (a number that has grown 55 per cent in the last 10 years and shows no signs of slowing down).

As a general rule, private schools spend less per student than public-sector schools. Most research demonstrates that their population mix is either as heterogeneous as, or in fact even more representative of what is traditionally considered “at risk” kids, than public-sector schools are. Private schools CAN ensure a level of consistency in teacher and teaching quality that is simply not possible in the rules-entrapped public-sector education system; in fact, this is one of their primary selling points for parents and staff alike.

Furthermore, there is no evidence of which I am aware supporting the assertion that teachers in private schools have lower qualifications on average than their public-sector counterparts. More to the point, even if there was such evidence, it would be irrelevant because the research has clearly demonstrated no direct connection between the effectiveness of a teacher and his or her level of professional qualifications. Similarly, the suggestion that public-sector schools offer a richer, more diverse extracurricular program is totally inconsistent with the evidence I have seen in my 33 years as a student, parent and researcher; if anything, the evidence would support the reverse assertion and place private schools at the pinnacle of extracurricular options.

That said, if the defenders of public-sector schools are so confident in their product and its demonstrable value to all students, I say, “Put our money where your mouth is.”
The only region of Canada that has no form of publicly funded choice is Atlantic Canada. If our public-sector schools can indeed educate every child in every circumstance, then they should have no problem with the concept of forgoing their monopoly and simply proving their worth in an environment where if they fail, the students get to go elsewhere.

I am not even advocating for a level playing field; let’s copy the biased models that are in effect elsewhere. That would mean fully funded choice among every public-sector school, partially funded choice if you move to a charter school (really a public-sector school with just a little more independence), and an even lower percentage if you move to a pure private school.

As to the likely concern that only the “rich” would be able to take advantage of this program, let’s make it income contingent in the first instance, and target it at only families making less than some arbitrary figure that a faceless bureaucrat considers “poor.” Better still, let’s encourage the “rich” to put together pools of capital to support the “poor” through transportation and tuition scholarships by making contributions to such scholarship funds tax deductible.

Surely the “poor” who, according to the passionate and articulate defenders of our public-sector schools, are well served right now, will not leave in droves and we can end this debate once and for all. But at least, if they do leave, the public will be getting what it pays for – high quality education that supports every Nova Scotian child to achieve to their maximum potential in an environment that is safe, healthy and supportive of their particular special needs and skills.

After all, to paraphrase that wonderful bank ad, “it is OUR money.”

Charles Cirtwill is the acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a non-partisan public policy think tank based in Halifax. As the father of four, he has been a parent in both the public and private school systems in this province.