Learning from Canada’s schools

Washington Times, February 23, 2010

In a speech on Canadian television touting the health care system of our northern neighbor, liberal filmmaker Michael Moore said, “It’s not that you need to become more like Americans, we need to become more Canadian-like.” If America mimicked Canadian education policy, however, Mr. Moore might never recover from the shock.

Mr. Moore loves Canada’s centralized, government-run health care system, but it turns out that a streak of Ronald Reagan runs through Canadian education. When he ran for president in 1980, Mr. Reagan advocated the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education, created by President Carter. Mr. Reagan called the department a “boondoggle,” an unwanted federal encroachment on local control of education policy. He would be very pleased that Canada has no federal Education Ministry or department and no federal Cabinet official for K-12 education.

Indeed, at the federal level, Canada spends virtually nothing on K-12 education. All funding and policymaking takes place at the provincial and local levels. In contrast, the U.S. Department of Education bureaucracy has more than 4,000 employees and the portion of K-12 education revenues provided by Washington is in the vicinity of 10 percent. Mr. Reagan understood the implications of this centralization of education policymaking for the average American.

In a 1982 speech, Mr. Reagan said that education isn’t the responsibility of “an isolated bureaucrat in Washington” or “state or local officials,” but rather “it is a parental right and responsibility.” He later proposed a voucher program “so that parents can choose which school, public or private, they want their children to attend.” Despite Mr. Reagan’s efforts, America’s centralized education system has blocked large-scale voucher programs. Such has not been the case in Canada.

Because it has a decentralized education system, Canada’s provinces are freer to experiment and innovate than American states. In the United States, federal policymakers have used Washington’s largesse as an all-too-tempting carrot to push states to meet federal objectives.President Obama’s “Race to the Top” education-funding program is using this strategy to make states pass laws favoring administration goals like improved teacher quality, but not educational choice, which the president opposes. In contrast, with no interference from Ottawa, the Canadian education policy field is much more open.

Several Canadian provinces provide direct per-student grants, similar to vouchers, to private independent and religious schools. In British Columbia, the provincial government funds children attending eligible private independent schools through per-student grants to those schools, with the amount dependent on the operating costs of the receiving school. In Alberta, private independent and religious schools can receive per-student grants that are a percentage of the per-pupil funding for the public schools. In addition to empowering parents of all income levels, provinces with school-choice programs have seen higher student achievement.

According to a study by the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, “achievement scores are not only higher generally in the provinces that fund independent schools, but also higher particularly among students from less advantaged backgrounds.” The study also found that in these provinces the competition fostered by the choice programs correlated with improved public schools and higher achievement by public-school students. The impact of Canadian decentralization and the country’s school-choice policies can also be seen in international testing comparisons.

On the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a system of tests measuring the performance of 15-year-olds in reading, math and science literacy, Canada bests the United States by a wide margin. In math, the U.S. scores 474, well below the international average of 498, and far below Canada’s 527. On the 2006 Progress in Reading Literacy Study exam, multiethnic British Columbia and the other pro-school-choice provinces of Alberta and Ontario all significantly outscored the U.S. in fourth-grade reading. The Canadian performance is more noteworthy given that the United States outspends Canada by about 20 percent per student in the latest available international statistics.

Federalism, local control and widespread school choice for parents have enhanced the academic health of Canadian children. Making American education “more Canadian-like” wouldn’t find support from Michael Moore, but American parents would welcome the idea, especially parents of low-income kids who wouldn’t ordinarily have access to quality education.

Lance T. Izumi is Koret senior fellow and senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute. Jason Clemens is director of research, strategic planning and budgeting at the institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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