Learning from Success: What Americans Can Learn from School Choice in Canada

Elementary and secondary schools in the United States and Canada share many historical and institutional features. International comparisons of student achievement, however, have revealed some striking differences between the two countries. On average, Canadian students outperform their U.S. counterparts. Indeed, some Canadian provinces rank with the top countries in the world, and recent work has shown that their strong performance owes much to relatively better achievement among students from less advantaged backgrounds. Features of Canada's schools that might explain the better performance of Canadian students, especially students from less advantaged backgrounds, should therefore be of interest to Americans seeking to improve the quality of U.S. education.

The Rand Institute recently released a study that claimed to be derived from an exhaustive review of school choice literature in the United States and abroad. This study concluded that nearly all of the existing empirical evidence on the effects of vouchers comes from relatively small-scale programs, whose beneficial effects would almost certainly differ for large-scale programs. This important scholarly review neglected to consider the case for school choice to be made with evidence from Canada, where 92 percent of the population enjoys a variety of publicly funded school choices. The evidence from Canada presents a compelling case for increasing educational choice in the United States.

Among the key differences between U.S. and Canadian publicly funded education is that a number of Canadian provinces provide public funding to qualifying private, independent schools, including religious schools. Historically, these funds have taken the form of direct per-student grants, akin to vouchers, although the province of Ontario is currently implementing a refundable tax credit for parents whose children attend independent schools. One province also provides some direct funding to home schoolers. International comparisons show that Canadian provinces that provide public funding to private, independent schools tend to have both higher average achievement scores and better scores for less advantaged students.

Several aspects of Canadian experience with independent school funding may be helpful for Americans interested in excellence and equity in publicly funded education.

* When Widely Available, Low and Middle Income Families Take Advantage of Choice

Figures on enrollment broken down by family income show that students from families with modest incomes are at least as likely to attend independent schools in parts of Canada where they receive public funds as are students from families that are better off. This fact should allay fears that a larger independent school sector will skim the more advantaged students from the public system and contradicts the claim made by the Rand study that "universally available voucher programs ... may disproportionately benefit highly educated and upper income families that have the means to take advantage of them."

* School Choice Narrows the Achievement Gap

There is a weaker correlation between socioeconomic status and achievement in provinces that fund independent schools. This fact also suggests that such funding is helpful, rather than harmful, to the pursuit of educational equity.

* Strong Community Support for School Choice

There is no evidence that support for independent schools has harmed Canadian social cohesion. Funding for private, independent schools has existed for decades with no discernable adverse impact on citizenship. There is no sense among Canadians that British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec, the provinces that fund independent schools, are more Balkanized than the rest of the country. In fact, national polls show majority support in all provinces for the principle that parents whose children attend independent schools should take some public funding with them or receive some relief through the tax system.

* Test Scores Are Higher in Areas with School Choice, Particularly Among Low-Income Students

Higher achievement scores in provinces that fund independent schools suggest that such funding enhances quality. The achievement scores are not only higher generally in provinces that fund independent schools but also higher particularly among students from less advantaged backgrounds. It appears that the reaction of the regular public schools to competition from partially funded independent schools has been to improve their programs. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) report showed that in Alberta, where families have a wide variety of educational choices, public school students actually scored above the provincial average. In the other provinces, public school students scored below the provincial average.

* Private Schools Maintain Independence with School Choice

Canadian experience shows that publicly subsidized, or "voucherized," independent schools can be accountable to government and still maintain their independence and distinctiveness.

Canadian provinces that fund independent schools typically require recipients to fulfill key financial and operating conditions, respect the provincial curriculum and participate in provincial assessments. Schools that choose not to fulfill these requirements are free to operate without provincial funding. The fact that the majority of independent schools accept funds under these terms, and that these arrangements have survived changes in provincial governments, testifies to the acceptability of such a balance among recipients, the voting public and a wide spectrum of political parties.

Most Canadians currently enjoy greater parental choice than their American neighbors. These choices include a broader choice of public schools, including separate linguistic and religious schools, publicly funded independent schools and greater freedom for home schoolers.

Claudia R. Hepburn is director of education policy at the Fraser Institute in Toronto, Canada. For the full text of "Learning from Success: What Americans Can Learn from School Choice in Canada," a study co-published by The Fraser Institute and the Friedman Foundation, click here.