What would fair school funding look like?

Happy Independent school Kids

Imagine. What if the government distributed food like it does education?

Groceries would be nationalized, paid for by taxes, and distributed by government-run stores. Each family would be entitled to an allotment of foods, just as children are entitled to classes. The family could choose among available foods, just as its children choose among available subjects. Independent grocery stores would be permitted, but people shopping in them would also be taxed to pay for all the food in the public stores, just the same.

Economist Milton Friedman used this grocery store analogy to illustrate a situation where public schools are funded by taxes, but independent schools are not. It’s easy to imagine what will happen if there is no competition in grocery stores. And the same is true of schools.

The freedom of buyers and sellers in a market means better products. Buyers (parents) should be free to choose the best education they can find, so that the sellers (schools) will be motivated to offer the best product they can. Competition works — monopolies don’t.

Alberta, with the most free education market in Canada, also has the best school system. It is world-class, ranking highest in science, highest in reading, and second highest in math among Canadian provinces. That status comes from competition — Alberta gives partial funding to independent schools.  Friedman wouldn’t be surprised: again, competition is good.

Too bad that self-proclaimed champions of public schools such as the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta (PSBAA) don’t respect competition.

The PSBAA’s latest report on education choice in Alberta contains wonderful depictions of the most choice-filled public school system in the country. Too bad the report recommends removing funding from the independent schools of Alberta; without motivation from competitive forces the Alberta system would not be as good as it is.

Is that equitable or reasonable?

Of course administrators and educrats of the public schools want to get rid of the independent schools — they see them as threatening their livelihood. They criticise the independent schools for being unique.  What is wrong with that? These non-public schools are often smaller and offer programs tailored to their niche clientele.

And if competition is removed, then students will be forced to take part in the public system — even as its quality declines. There will be no motivation for improvement in the services offered by the public schools.

Is the PSBAA seeking mediocrity when it says it wants to take away the choice of the parents?

Or is it elitism? Those who choose the independent schools are generally lower and middle-income families. They’re making a sacrifice to contribute to schools that the province only partially subsidizes. Removing all of the funding will make it impossible for these working-class people to choose the schools that they want.  Does the PSBAA want only the wealthier families of Alberta to access the diversity of choices that would be a truly good fit for their families?

The public system struggles with class sizes, maintaining rural schools, and offering the extra help required by students with any number of special needs. Like the biblical rich man, the PSBAA thinks that taking the poor man’s ewe is going to resolve its management struggles.  It won’t — in fact, those independent schools subsidize the public system.

Extend Friedman’s analogy. Imagine a restaurateur who offers all manner of dishes in his large restaurant. Suppose he complains about people going to the nearby French bistro that serves frog legs. The restaurateur could claim that it is not right to run a competing restaurant. He could point out how many more clients he could have if the little restaurant was shut down. And he could demand that the government shut his competitor down.

That’s what the PSBAA is doing — and it doesn’t look any better on them. When it comes to restaurants, we want variety — we even have laws to protect competition.

Imagine. Could we treat our schools with the same fairness we extend to grocery stores and restaurants?

Thank goodness the PSBAA report is correct — Alberta does have a thriving landscape of choice in and outside of the public system.  But it’s time for that public system to take some cues from the independent schools. And maybe it’s time for us to imagine what fair funding for independent schools looks like. Because competition works.

Maria Cameron is an economist with Parents for Choice in Education, www.parentchoice.ca

This article originally appeared in the Western Standard on April 9th, 2024. A printable pdf is available.