Michael Van Pelt
All education is public education. Sadly, the norm in Canada is to equate public education with government-run schools. Cardus is a leader in helping professionals and the public take a broader view of education, taking into account all contributions to the public good – be they from government-run schools or independent schools. To that end, Cardus convened a panel of experts at our Ottawa office to explore the issue of educational reform in Canada. Meeting on the sidelines of the March 2019 Manning Networking Conference, Calgary radio host Danielle Smith moderated a discussion with Cardus Co-Founder and Executive Vice President Ray Pennings and Cardus Senior Fellow Dr. Deani Van Pelt. A portion of their conversation is reproduced below, focusing on three themes: A Global Perspective on Education, Conservative and Business Perspectives on Education, and Spurring Innovation in Education.
A Global Perspective on Education
Ray Pennings: Welcome, all, to this discussion of education reform in Canada. Knowing that among our many guests here tonight we also have a large number of participants from the Manning Conference, I’m going to make an assumption that at least some members of the audience we’re talking with tonight are conservative political activists. Thinking from that perspective, my hope is to offer a bit of challenge as to why education, and religious or independent education in particular, is a third rail in conservative politics.
I want to make the argument that when we think of reform in education at large, we need to include in our thinking the independent school sector. We need to think about introducing market principles into the delivery of education to create innovation. That’s very much how Cardus’s work on education has proceeded . . . I’m a fan. I sent my own son to independent school, and am a believer in the independent school movement. But I believe in the traditional arguments associated with parental rights. Obviously there’s a faith motivation behind my own decision, but when I think of education reform at large, Canada is significantly out of step with the rest of the world in the sense of having real parental choice.
Even in the public education system, I was making the case to someone today that really what we have is postal-code-determined education for most Canadians. Based on where you live it’s automatic where your child goes to school. The reality is, there is little diversity in the experience of most Canadian children in their schools, which reflect the social economic makeup of their neighbourhoods. So we’ve got wonderful macro data about the diversity of our education system, but for the experience of any given child, it actually is not that diverse.
Cardus over the last decade has been doing major survey work on the outcomes of education. We’ve been interviewing adults in both Canada and the United States, 29 to 39 years old, and asking, “Is there a school-sector effect in terms of spiritual outcomes, academic formation, and cultural engagement?” Whether you went to a government school or a non-government school, we’ve got tons of data, and there’s a lot of nuance in it.
But I think the point we see in these surveys is that there are a variety of ways to deliver quality education, and that if we ask, “Is education reform possible?” I want to put my thesis out there and answer yes. But for conservatives to do that, it requires the introduction of market principles to drive innovation in education. That’s my opening salvo.
Danielle Smith: Thank you, and let me go to Deani Van Pelt. I have a theory about why it is that education is the third rail in conservative politics. I’ll propose it to you after we’ve heard Deani’s comments. Deani has a very long title with a lot of different roles, one of them being that she is a senior fellow at Cardus. Deani, go ahead.
Deani Van Pelt: Good evening, everyone. For the last eight months, I have headed up an industry association in the independent school sector. It’s a new association of independent Christian schools in Ontario, and we don’t have a similar organization in any of the eastern provinces, so hopefully I’ll be able to work with the six provinces across the country in the independent school sector, advocating for the sector. Something I noticed four years ago when I started as the director of policy for the Fraser Institute, and we took a look at how our conversation was going across the country in terms of understanding the education sector and market principles in the education sector is that we actually didn’t even have an overall sense of the national landscape on education.
So that was one of the first things we did. We said, “Let’s hear from all the ministries.” I would actually just like to know: What share of students in each province attend a government school? What type of government school? What share attend an independent school, and what share of students are homeschooled? We just pulled that together. It turns out that was kind of radical. No one had done that. I happened to notice a few months ago that Statistics Canada in November produced a very similar chart.
So it’s great to have these national snapshots of what’s going on in the country, and what we did indeed find is that the independent school sector is very small in a place that has an enormous amount of diversity. It’s the province of Alberta. So there you have one of the smallest non-government school sectors in the country. Why? We can talk about what that answer might be. We definitely learned that, province by province, each one of our stories and the way we design and deliver education is different.
So my answer to the question, Is education reform possible in Canada? would have these two caveats: Yes it is possible, first, if we’re willing to learn from one another and have more conversations across provinces, and second, if we’re willing to learn from other countries across the world. I think Ontario can be encouraged to start looking elsewhere for really good solutions. I’ve just met a great organization out of Geneva called Oidel. They produce an index of education freedom, and they’ve got a book and you can just flip through it. It’s one page per country. I learned so much about non-government school delivery in every single country across the world that my imagination was fervid with possibilities.
The third place we need to look for solutions is not only across the country and across the world but also locally. A lot of our solutions reside in our communities, at the school level. We need to look to parents, because they know best what their children need. We need to look to teachers in classrooms, and we need to look to school leaders. Principals need to be empowered, particularly in government schools, with more authority, more autonomy. So yes, education reform is possible, but we need to be looking for good solutions in a variety of places.
Conservative and Business Perspectives on Education
Danielle Smith: A big part of the fight over education reform has to do with unions and also with regulations on schools. Here’s a proposal to spark debate: Why not say that if you are going to be in the education system, everyone has to have Alberta Teachers Association certificated staff, and they all have to be part of the union? Okay, knowing that Catherine Swift is here and she might tear her hair out because of this question, just know I’m being provocative. But the reason I ask is I look at health-care reform in Sweden. Part of the reason they’ve been able to advance health-care reform is that they’re such a heavily unionized place that it doesn’t matter whether you’re working at a government hospital or a private hospital. The union isn’t out for money, so they’ve been champions of choice because they know that choice gives better working conditions for their people. So maybe we’re looking at this the wrong way. Rather than fight the unions, why not embrace them?
Ray Pennings: I think there are a couple of things. Number one, I’m pro-union. I’ve written a piece, “The Conservative Case for Collecting Bargaining,” so I’m pro-union in terms of the benefits that they can bring in various settings along the way. I’m not opposed to that argument; however, that presumes a very different mindset than Canadian unions and Canadian teacher unions in particular would have. So even if that theoretically was possible, moving from the current reality to that is a huge step that isn’t there along the way.
But let me push two things in terms of the mindset and the assumptions that are there. Deani and I coauthored a paper that was released earlier this week on the topic of funding fairness for Ontario families with children who have special education needs. The Ontario government spends more than three billion dollars on special education programs. But students needing assistance in independent schools receive nothing from the Ontario Ministry of Education. We also learned that some ministries have more exclusionary policies and practices than others. For example both the ministries of health and education fund trays to help some students with special needs organize their learning materials. If the tray is provided by the ministry of health, students can use it in either a government or independent school. However, if the tray is funded by the ministry of education, and a family decides to switch schools to an independent school, that tray may not go with the student to their new school. We have to put that tray away.
So we highlighted that even if you funded independent schools at 25, 50 or 75 percent of the amount government schools receive, you could provide more comprehensively for the needs of challenged children in Ontario. That was striking to me, so we pitched it, sent out the media release, followed up with education reporters.
We had an expression of interest from an education reporter at a mainstream newspaper, but then an email came back that said, “Oh, I didn’t see that this covered private schools. Not interested.” So this is a story about helping special needs Ontarians, but if you go to an independent school, the assumption is, “Sorry, that disqualifies you. I’m not even interested in covering the story.”
So I think there’s a pervasive underlying mindset that we have to deal with.
Can I throw a second challenge? That mindset is easy to talk about because those people are out there, presumably not in this room as attendees of the Manning Conference. But when conservative policy even thinks of the public education system, what do we talk about? We talk about cutting dollars. We talk about the costs of the education. We don’t talk about excellence. We don’t talk about outcomes, and standardized tests, as if this checklist of rules is going to give us the outcomes. Well, maybe we should move instead of input measures to output measures, and allow creativity and innovation. Would that not be a more conservative, principled approach? And then, I suggest, we will have a lot more room in terms of policy as opposed to the tired stuff we always see.
Danielle Smith: Well, I think it’s a great point. This is one of the traps that conservatives have fallen into. I saw it with Ralph Klein when we used to have individual hospital boards. He said, “Oh, well that’s inefficient. If we could just move to regional boards, we’d get rid of all of these layers of management.” And then seventeen boards didn’t work so we went to nine, and then ultimately went to one, and we’ve got a larger bureaucracy than we’ve ever had in health care.
But I think that nobody is willing to do what actually needs to be done, which is say, school boards have outlived their usefulness. They’ve become too big and unwieldy. The trustees don’t have effective oversight. There are multiple layers of managers. Maybe every school actually needs to be directly chartered with the province, and we need to get rid of school boards altogether.