TORONTO, CANADA — It could be an axiom of sound educational policy: When the unions’ nostrils flare, administer more of the same medicine.
We see this principle on proud display here in Canada, which is experiencing its first privately funded school-choice initiative. Thanks to the philanthropy of a private Canadian foundation, 150 children from low-income families across the province won grants that pay for half their tuition up to Grade 8.
Children First: School Choice Trust is a pilot project to give freedom to families who see greater educational opportunities for their children, but who couldn’t otherwise afford it. It’s hard to object to such obvious good sense, or so one might think.
But this is Canada, where the teachers’ unions are like irascible elephants. Any innovative thoughts are like fleas in their ear.
According to the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, Canada “is becoming more Americanized, more individualistic, and as such is more vulnerable to ‘free market’ solutions to public policy issues.”
The union has issued a remarkable brief entitled, “Creating a Crisis: Choice Conspiracy Continues.” It insists “there is an organized campaign to discredit and undermine our public schools in order to privatize public education, divert public funding to private schools, and to create a two-tiered system based on school choice and vouchers.”
Most striking about union hostility toward choice is the fear of accountability. Earl Manners, recently retired president of the Teachers’ Federation, thinks “school based accountability is just another code phrase to achieve the ultimate goal of the privatization of the public education system in Ontario.”
This kind of attitude is a curious one for an educator to adopt. Not only do the teachers’ unions here eschew report cards for schools, they want to assign a failing grade to school choice without examining the evidence.
Much of the union opposition here stems from a sunny devotion to all things statist. In a recent speech, in which he condemned the new school-choice program as part “of an ongoing political campaign to privatize public education,” Mr. Manners celebrated his union’s mantra: “We choose public health care over private profit. We choose public power over private greed. And, we choose public services over private interest.”
The union has even tarred all private schools as sexist and homophobic. “Scratch the surface of some of these private schools,” Manners once said — without marshaling any evidence — and “you will find homophobic beliefs.” Private schools, he continued, “do not reflect the diversity of the province and, in some of them, their views regarding male-female relations do not live up to the standards that this country and this province has set.”
All of this is nonsense. A quarter of students in Canada’s private schools are immigrants; 29 percent come from families earning less than $40,000 a year.
The school-choice drive here neither promotes the private system nor despoils the public one. It’s about giving parents options, and, more particularly, giving poor parents more of the options that wealthier parents have always enjoyed.
What might surprise Americans is that many Canadians actually have greater parental choice than Americans do in education. These choices include publicly funded private schools, greater freedom for homeschoolers, and charter schools.
Several Canadian provinces offer public funding to qualifying private schools, including religious schools. In fact, over 90 percent of the population enjoys a panoply of publicly funded school choices. In several provinces, these funds take the form of per-pupil funding directly to schools, much like vouchers, although the province of Ontario is currently offering a 20 percent refundable tax credit for parents whose children attend private schools.
All Canadians are eligible for a federal charitable-donation tax credit for the portion of private-school tuition at religious schools that is tied to religious instruction, as well as a tax deduction for the portion of tuition that represents child-care costs.
In those provinces that fund private schools, there is a statistically weaker correlation between socioeconomic status and educational achievement. When funding follows children to the parents’ choice of school, parental satisfaction and test scores shoot upwards.
Meanwhile, there is no empirical evidence showing that support for school choice has hurt anyone. In fact, greater school choice can promote fairness and can co-exist with a strong public system. All parents appreciate this instinctively, especially single parents trying to make ends meet — and they represented 26 percent of the thousands of applications to Canada’s first private school-choice program. Why, then, don’t the teachers’ unions care about poor people?