CALGARY, Canada -- Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court early this
summer gave school choice a green light, anti-choicers have asserted that
vouchers are chancy because they've only been tested on a small scale so
far. Canadians know that's not true -- 92 percent of the people to the north
of us live in areas with school choice.
In four of Canada's provinces -- Quebec, Manitoba, Alberta and
British Columbia -- independent schools receive direct subsidies from the
government, correlated to the number of students attending them. (Subsidies
began as a way to assure Catholics that they would have an alternative to
public schools once controlled by Protestants.) Ontario also has had a
subsidy system but, beginning this fall -- unless political pressures
dictate a change -- parents in that most populous Canadian province will be
able to use a refundable tax credit.
The results of Canadian school choice, according to a new study
from British Columbia's Fraser Institute, are striking. School choice has
been particularly advantageous for poor and middle-income families.
Achievement test scores have gone up, particularly among low-income
students, in the provinces that offer school choice. Independent schools
tend to be more socially diverse than public schools, which often draw from
economically homogenous neighborhoods.
Let me emphasize this: Canadian school choice has helped all
students, and particularly the poor. The correlation between socioeconomic
status and school achievement has dropped in provinces that fund independent
schools. This result suggests that school choice contributes to the pursuit
of educational equity rather than takes away from it.
Educational choice has gone the furthest here in the province of
Alberta, which instituted it in the 1960s. Independent schools now receive
per-student about 60 percent of what public schools spend; special needs
students receive 100 percent of what the government would spend on a similar
child in a public school. Home-schooling families receive about one-sixth of
the public school costs. Fears that government would dictate to Christian
schools have diminished over the years.
Given all the fears about religious schools voiced in the United
States, it's instructive that support for school choice in Canada has grown
even as animosity toward Christianity and biblical principle has flourished
among Canadian media and academia folks. Just before I gave a lecture at the
University of Calgary, a friendly conservative warned me that many members
of the academic audience would be dismayed if I stated that Christianity was
true. Of course I did just that, and received criticism for not being
Later, another friendly conservative wistfully said: "Two-thirds
of the objections would have vanished if your talk hadn't had religion in
it. I'm not saying that you should have changed what you said, but ..." I
mention these comments both to report on Canadian views and to note a
danger: Secular conservatives in the United States who favor school choice
are being tempted to jettison evangelical allies and go for systems (like
expanded charter systems) that exclude "religious" schools.
The Canadian experience shows that there is no need to fall into
that trap. In a country with less Christian influence than the United
States, school choice is thriving because it is seen as basically the right
way to go, and Christian schools are not the objects of discrimination. We
can be equally successful in the United States, as long as Christians and
conservatives stick together.
The problems of President Bush's faith-based initiatives show
what happens when secularized conservatives squirm out of an alliance with
conservative Christians and try to make a deal with liberals. The White
House lost crucial allies early in the process by agreeing to policies that
would discriminate against evangelical groups. We should not make that
mistake in a revived school-choice movement.