In defence of choice in education - The Orca

In defence of choice in education

header - Matt Lau

Matthew Lau: the indicators show BC’s education system is producing good results, and doesn’t need a massive funding increase

Here’s an all too familiar story: a public sector labour union insists government spending is far too low; moreover, government must further tilt the playing field by granting it an effective monopoly.

Such is the case made in a recent submission from the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) to the provincial government, which argues that – even though all BC families pay taxes – only those families whose children attend government-run schools staffed by BCTF members should be allowed access to these funds.

Currently, families sending their children to independent schools have partial access to the money they pay in taxes for education, since independent schools can receive either 35 or 50 per cent of the per-student funding given to public schools.

Without this funding, the government would have an effective monopoly on schooling and the BCTF a monopoly on teaching positions – except among families willing and able to pay twice: once in taxes; then again for private tuition.

Providing at least partial funding for independent school tuition means families have a greater ability to choose between public and independent schools.

Just as the ability to choose between McDonald’s, Tim Horton’s, Starbucks, and other coffee shops makes coffee drinkers better off, so too does the ability to choose between government-run and privately-run schools make families better off. People have different tastes in coffee; similarly, parents have differing views on education and children have diverse needs.

The benefits of increased school choice and better access to independent schools are clear. Test results from the BC Ministry of Education show that students in independent schools score significantly better than students in public schools. This is true in elementary school, middle school, and high school, and even after excluding “elite” preparatory schools.

Importantly, school choice benefits public school students too, because competition forces public schools to improve in quality or else risk losing students, and therefore funding, to independent schools. As in everything else, when it comes to education, competition and choice are better than monopoly.

Teachers’ unions and other opponents of school choice protest that funding for independent schools deprives public schools of resources. The public school system is “chronically underfunded” according to the BCTF, which predictably calls for significant and immediate “enhancements” to government spending.

As evidence of this chronic underfunding, the union produces a chart showing that from 2008/09 to 2015/16 (the latest year of available data), per-student spending on public schools in British Columbia fell relative to other provinces.

What would be worrying is if the benefits of schooling – the education of students – declined. But data from the Programme of International Student Assessment, which measures student achievement in developed countries, shows that from 2009 to 2015, student performance improved in British Columbia relative to other provinces.

In other words, there was a relative increase in the benefits and a relative decline in the costs to government of education in British Columbia. This is not exactly a cause of concern. In addition, the evidence shows that increasing the costs of schooling by hiring more teachers or paying them more would not yield much, if any, compensating benefit.

Moreover, eliminating independent school funding might well cause a net increase in education costs for the government by causing migration of students from independent schools to the public schools.

Lastly and most importantly, government spending on education is funded by taxes collected from all families. As a matter of fairness, all families with school-age children should have access to these funds – not just those who send their children to the government-run schools.

Matthew Lau is an economics writer. His columns have appeared in numerous newspapers and online publications across Canada.