April 19th, 2019

Examining choice in education

By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on December 1, 2018.

Are competing school systems

good for Alberta education?

Brian Callaghan



An “Eye on Education” column, Nov. 14 by Chris Smeaton, superintendent of the Holy Spirit Catholic School Division, argued that it was not a viable option to look at a single public system for K-12 education in Alberta and that suggestions were “becoming increasingly alarming.” The article includes several underlying assumptions and questionable conclusions that need to be addressed.

A Fraser Institute study once concluded “É Alberta currently offers the greatest degree of school choice in Canada.” Rather than blindly accepting that this choice is a good thing, Alberta should be looking at the financial and societal costs of offering so much choice, and whether the current model is optimum, or even sustainable.

Discussions of choice in education often begin by looking at financial costs, but there are societal costs as well. Alberta is an increasingly diverse province. There is currently inequitable access to choice. Parental choice is restricted by religion, by location and by income. Catholic parents, parents in large urban settings, and wealthy parents have more choice. Rather than having more choice, student choice may be restricted by systems operating inefficiently and eliminating various options due to cost concerns. One of the most important societal questions is whether a respectful community is best achieved by segregating children.

Research on the financial cost of choice in Alberta is badly needed, especially in today’s economic conditions. The comparison to health is a red herring. Health is not funding competing systems operating in the same communities. “Bigger is not always better” ignores that economies of scale do exist, and most divisions seek to increase enrolments, and thereby decrease per student costs. In Catholic divisions this is often accomplished by admitting selected non-Catholic students.

Some assume that student learning is enhanced due to competition. Two of the more respected researchers in education, John Hattie and Dylan Wiliam, have stated that school choice is not a really important variable in student success. The American system has regularly attempted to improve results through competition and consistently does poorly on international testing. Alberta has done well, but there is no reason to believe that it is due to competition. Separate schools were established to protect minority rights, not to establish a publicly funded competitor for public schools. If it had been designed to be competitive, neither party would have the ability to discriminate in student admission and hiring. Nor would either system be able to avoid the most sparsely populated areas where it is most costly to operate. The article advances arguments for competition and then contradicts those arguments by pointing out advantages of working together, which would be facilitated by having one inclusive system.

The article conveniently leaves the issue of constitutional protection to the end of the article. “While some may view Catholic education as an option, it must also be recognized as a right since it is constitutionally protected.” This leaves the reader with the inaccurate conclusion that the situation cannot be changed. Suggesting that there is a right to a Catholic education is inaccurate and ignores both history and current reality. The right that exists is for those of minority faith. There is no right to a Catholic school where the majority is Catholic. There is also no constitutional right for a non-Catholic student to attend a Catholic school.

In 1867 and 1905, attempts were made to protect minority education rights. The beginning assumption was that everyone was either Protestant or Catholic. Data from an 1861 census of Upper Canada, Lower Canada and New Brunswick indicated that over 99 per cent of the population identified as Catholic (44.5 per cent) or Protestant (54.9 per cent). By contrast, in 2011, the last year in which there is census data in Alberta, 24.3 per cent identified as Catholic, 36 per cent as affiliated with other Christian churches, and over 38 per cent identified as neither. The Catholic Church, the only religious organization that is being protected, is over three times as large as the next largest church in Alberta. A growing number of adherents to other faiths have no guaranteed option to establish schools. Some suggest funding every religious group to have its own system but there is no way that a different system for each religion could be operated efficiently.

The article states that Catholic systems have provided students “both Catholic and non-Catholic, with high-quality education.” This statement highlights the fact that Catholic school divisions are relying on constitutional protection but have also expanded their interpretation to justify the public funding of non-Catholics attending Catholic schools. A court case in Saskatchewan, which has the same constitutional protection as Alberta, concluded that the constitutional protection did not extend to funding non-Catholic students to attend Catholic schools. Only a use of the “notwithstanding clause” has allowed the practice to continue. The outcome of this legal issue is currently before the courts. The outcome will have far-reaching consequences.

Change is possible and desirable. Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec sought and received federal government approval to change the constitutional protection in those provinces and Alberta could make the same decision. This conclusion about constitutional protection in Ontario could apply to Alberta. “The funding of only Catholic schools is discriminatory and violates the equality provision in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

The Together for Students campaign does not imply that the public system is better than the separate system. There are good schools and good teachers in both systems. The campaign is about discussing how we can combine the best of both, respect constitutional rights, provide choice and come together for students to offer more academic, athletic and life interest choices. The students of the 21st century deserve that. See more information at http://www.togetherforstudents.ca.

Brian Callaghan is executive director of the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta, based in Edmonton.

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17 Responses to “Examining choice in education”

  1. Tris Pargeter says:

    Agreed. Taking apart the choice idea is imperative, because the choice is not for students, it’s for their overly controlling parents.

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