School choice. Sounds good, doesn’t it? The idea is often linked to the concept that competition improves the quality of education. Alberta is certainly taking a leadership role in this, with taxpayers funding public, separate, private, charter, alternative and home schooling. But is the system fair to all? Does competition really improve learning? There is reason to think not. Indeed, it’s time to recognize that school choice is not always benign, that it favours some families at the expense of others, and is a threat to public education.
Choice means discrimination against teachers based on their religion. Catholic teachers can work in either the separate schools or public schools. Teachers from other religions or no religion need not apply to the Catholic system, even though the jobs are fully funded by public taxes. In the publicly-funded private and alternative schools run by evangelical churches, choice means that teachers must believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, and that evolution is a myth. If you’re a science teacher who happens to accept, well, science, you don’t stand a chance. Pastors make the hiring decisions for these government-funded positions.
Choice means government-sponsored discrimination against students based on religion. Catholics are quick to point out that they allow children of non-Catholics to attend as well. Of course they do — that’s how they recruit young people into the church. Parents, however, are denied their right to run for election of the school board unless, of course, they’re believers.
Choice means government-sponsored discrimination against both teachers and students who are gay or lesbian. Not only do some religious schools refuse to accept LGBT students and oppose the formation of gay-straight alliances, they even claim that measures to promote tolerance and acceptance of gays are a violation of their “religious freedom.”
Choice means that valuable education resources are wasted on nonsense such as creationism. Critical thinking and scientific understanding will be crucial to the success of our young people and our society in general. It’s unconscionable that our tax dollars are being used to undermine these qualities by teaching children to accept ideas that have been thoroughly debunked.
Choice means that many children will be denied comprehensive sex education and HPV vaccines, thus increasing the risk of STIs and unplanned pregnancies. In years to come, some women will almost certainly die of cervical cancer that could have been prevented by vaccines today. “Abstinence only” sex education is a failure.
Choice means that our children are being segregated according to religion, family economic status and ethnicity, instead of learning to accept and work with people of different backgrounds.
Choice means that our education dollars are subsidizing foreign churches. Our taxes should be used to strengthen public education, not to fund the recruitment and marketing on behalf of the Vatican and wealthy U.S. evangelical churches.
Choice means overlapping and wasteful duplication of school buildings and administration, especially at a time when we can’t afford to squander public education dollars.
Choice means that the various Catholic, private, alternative and charter schools collect a per-student grant from the public purse, but can refuse admission to students based on their grades or special needs that would require extra staff and cost. This leaves the public schools absorbing the greater proportion of costs for coded (special needs) and ESL students, resulting in higher school fees, larger classes and reduced program choice.
Choice means that private schools accepting only students with higher academic marks will superficially “look better” than public schools that welcome every child. The Fraser Institute School Report Cards, for instance, fail to mention this. It’s not clear whether this is a case of ignorance or deception by omission.
For example, according to the Fraser Report, Webber Academy, an elite private school in Calgary, consistently scores within the top few schools provincially and is currently given a 10 out of 10 rating. It’s average grade 12 exam mark for 2010 was 84 per cent. Further down the list, in 46th place, Canmore Collegiate High School (where I am on the school council) rates 7.5 out of 10 with an average exam mark of 69 per cent.
But this doesn’t tell the whole story. The private school requires that students applying have to be in the 80th percentile or above to get accepted, i.e. only the top 20 per cent. Now, if we apply this formula to the Canmore school, the numbers are revealing. In 2011, the grade 12 average was 70 per cent. However, the top 20 per cent of these students delivered an average of 88.3 per cent.
Furthermore, the Canmore public school accepts ESL and special needs kids. How many at Webber? None.
Then there’s cost. In addition to the per student grant from the government (70 per cent of what the public schools get), the parents of Webber students pay a tuition of $16,500. When you add up the numbers, the private school receives over three times the revenue per student that the public school receives.
Our real choice is about the future of our public schools. Do we concentrate our efforts on them so they can be as good as possible, Or do we continue to undermine that great democratic institution — public education — by continuing our misguided pursuit of choice?
Scott Rowed is the science and education chair for the Centre for Inquiry Calgary, and a school council member at Canmore Collegiate High School.