Canada's experience shows that school choice works

Posted: Jul 30, 2002 12:00 AM
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 "inclusive." 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.