War on public schools rages
Supporters of public education need to realize they’re in the middle of a war for its future, and they’re losing.
The Fraser Institute’s school report-card program is merely the opening salvo in a campaign to strip public education of its funding and direct the resources to the private and nonprofit sectors.
Every year the institute spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to compile and disseminate its rankings of elementary and secondary schools. It has undreamed-of support from corporate media, which turn over dozens of pages each year for school rankings in the Vancouver Sun, Calgary Herald, Edmonton Sun, Toronto Sun, Ottawa Citizen, Windsor Star, and Quebec newsmagazine L’Actualité.
Every year teachers’-union executives and education experts write op-ed pieces pointing out the serious deficiencies in the rankings. And every year the media play the rankers and their critics as a debate between two equally valid viewpoints.
Lost in the debate are the goals of universally accessible, publicly funded education, such as preparing children for citizenship, cultivating a skilled work force, and developing critical-thinking skills.
For its part, the Fraser Institute couldn’t care less what the teachers say. It knows the report-card program is working the way it intends, which is to undermine public confidence in the public system. The wealthy, who send their children to private schools, ask, “Why should I pay for the public system, especially the failing parts?” And the poor ask, “I’m not getting a fair deal from the public system. Is there something else?”
Families are already buying houses near high-ranked public schools if they can afford to, or bussing their kids if they’re fortunate enough to gain access to “better” schools. And divorcing parents fighting in the courts for custody of their children are citing the school rankings as a reason why the parent who lives near a high-ranked school should get custody.
The institute’s Peter Cowley, who manages the report cards, and whose background is marketing, not education, is clear about the goal of school ranking: to “establish one of the conditions necessary for a free market in education; namely the availability to consumers, in this case parents, of reliable information on the comparative value of services provided by competing suppliers, in this case schools”, he wrote in the September 2007 issue of Fraser Forum, the institute’s magazine.
Other conditions are necessary for a free market in education, the think tank says, and it is working to establish these, too. Most important is to create a system in which government or private entities provide vouchers so that children from disadvantaged families can attend private schools. The Fraser Institute already has a program dedicated to this activity in Ontario and Alberta. Children First is bankrolled by the deep pockets of Canada’s third-wealthiest family, the Westons, to the tune of $2 million to $3 million a year. Poor families compete for these vouchers, which can be used to attend religious or private schools.
And once one provincial government offers its own taxpayer-financed vouchers, for-profit school chains will flood into that province. This dismal prospect is most likely to occur first in Alberta, where Danielle Smith, leader of the Wildrose Alliance, stands a good chance of becoming the next premier.
Smith has advocated vouchers since she was a Fraser Institute intern in the mid-’90s. While in the think tank’s employ, she coauthored a study with Vancouver Sun editorial pages editor Fazil Mihlar (then the institute’s director of deregulation), which concluded that “schools must be given the freedom to innovate,” and that making schools compete through a voucher scheme was the way to do this.
To prepare for the day when taxpayer-funded vouchers become a reality, the Fraser Institute already has a Web site promoting for-profit school chains.
“The intended effect of the report cards,” Cowley wrote in 2007, is “to encourage multi-faceted competition among schools, both public and private.”
It is indeed true that high-priced private schools do compete for students from wealthy families. When the Calgary Herald publishes the Fraser Institute’s Alberta school rankings, twice each year, Cowley notes, private schools are prominent advertisers in the paper. The March 21 Herald, for instance, gave prominent placement to the institute’s annual Alberta elementary rankings, leading with a front-page story and 14 pages in the B section. Clear Water Academy, an independent Catholic school, Glenmore Christian Academy, Menno Simons Christian School, and Master’s Academy and College all paid the Herald for ads in the rankings section, while Webber Academy took out a half-page colour ad trumpeting the fact that “the Fraser Institute has ranked Webber Academy as one of the top schools in Alberta.” Webber can easily afford the ad: it charges elementary students $14,000 a year in tuition.
But private schools have always competed for the children of the elite and the nouveau riche, so the Fraser Institute has not actually encouraged competition here.
Public schools are the real target. Competition should not be relevant to public schools, which must educate children from a wide range of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. Public schools must take everyone in the catchment area who shows up at the door, while private schools can screen their students based on testing, report cards, letters of reference, and interviews, to determine if a potential student will “fit in” with the school’s culture.
So what is the point of claiming that poor inner-city schools, where parents may have two or three jobs and kids go to class hungry, are competing with wealthy schools, where parents have the time and resources to support their children’s education?
The point of the exercise is to undermine public confidence in the system as a whole, to frame education as a market composed of hundreds of individual schools where the improvement or deterioration of a school’s ranking is due to the effort of principal, teachers, and students.
The Fraser Institute already has a program to make this point. It hands out awards—with a little cash (also financed by the Westons)—in B.C., Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec, to schools whose rankings topped the list over five years, schools whose rankings went up the most, and schools whose rankings are higher than they should be, given their socioeconomic status.
Conclusion: education is improved through the efforts of individual schools. Government officials and teachers’ unions play no part in this endeavour. In fact, as free-enterprise guru Milton Friedman insisted, they are the enemy, resisting improved education because they promote their own agendas, which are not those of parents and children. (Note the name of the Fraser’s voucher program: Children First.)
Friedman launched the project to turn education into a market with an article he wrote in 1955. He was alarmed by “the trend toward collectivism” and worried about an “indiscriminate extension of governmental responsibility” into education through government-run schools. Friedman proposed vouchers, which local governments would give to each child through the child’s family to pay for a general education at any type of school the family deemed appropriate.
“Competition is the most effective way to improve quality, whether in computers, in automobiles, in suits, or in schooling,” Friedman once told an interviewer.
Forty years later, Friedman was still railing at public education. “Public schools,” he wrote in 1995, three years before the Fraser Institute started ranking schools, “are not really public at all but simply private fiefs of the administrators and the union officials.”
The Fraser Institute hews closely to Friedman’s line. Institute founder Michael Walker was a close friend of Friedman’s, and Friedman was an early Fraser Institute adviser and author. Walker is still a director of Milton and Rose Friedman’s voucher-advocacy organization, the Foundation for Educational Choice, based in Indianapolis, Indiana.