This article was originally published on Medium on October 5th, 2020.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce brought public school funding to a record high in Ontario, but as public education funding has increased over the years, student test scores in reading, science, and mathematics have declined.
More money isn’t the solution.
Lecce should consider Alberta’s innovative charter school model which improved student performance in public schools at a fraction of the cost to taxpayers.
In the early 1990s, an Alberta government report found that the quality of education in the province’s public schools was falling behind because of a lack of competition. As a result, former premier Ralph Klein introduced charter school legislation through the School Amendment Act in 1994.
What are charter schools?
Charter schools are “autonomous, government-funded, non-profit schools that charge no tuition, each offering a unique educational approach,” as defined by Paige MacPherson in a policy paper for the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. Some Alberta charter schools focus on academic enrichment, while some cater to students learning English and others are tailored to help children experiencing mental health challenges.
Like other public schools in Alberta, the province’s charter schools administer standardized tests to students and only allow accredited teachers to teach. Unlike other public schools in Alberta, teachers at charter schools aren’t allowed to be full members of the province’s teachers’ union, the Alberta Teachers’ Association.
Ontario should consider charter schools because in Alberta, they “outperform all other types of schools, including independent schools that charge tuition,” said MacPherson. They’re also far less expensive for taxpayers.
When looking at the cost of Alberta’s non-charter public education system, including capital spending and employee pension contributions, the per-pupil funding amount worked out to $13,234 in the 2012 school year. By comparison, the charter school per-pupil cost was $8,950. That represents savings of over $4,000 per student, or 32 per cent.
The Ontario government is spending $32 billion on education this year. Year-end projections peg the deficit at $39 billion and the provincial debt at nearly $400 billion. Given that education spending is one of the largest budgetary line items – second only to health care – any opportunity to save money while improving outcomes ought to be considered.
Ontario currently suffers from the same problem that the Alberta government’s report addressed in 1993: a lack of competition in the public education system. In Ontario, students in the public system have essentially four options: English public schools, English Catholic, French public, or French Catholic. For unilingual families, the options are halved, and there’s really only one option for unilingual families with a strong preference for or against Catholic schools. Unionized government teachers are the only option for students in Ontario’s public education system.
While individual school boards may offer a variety of specialized programs, current supply does not meet demand. For example, the Thames Valley District School Board has 132 elementary schools, but only one specializing in the arts: Lester B. Pearson School of the Arts. Each year, 200 students apply, but only 56 are admitted to the school’s enriched arts program in dance, drama, visual arts and music.
Charter schools would increase educational diversity and would help to fill community demand for more school choice. Saving money while improving public schools’ performance should be a no-brainer for the Ontario government.
Charter school legislation is the single best thing Lecce could do for public school students in Ontario. He should make it a priority to introduce a bill soon.