Government control not necessary to ensure good schools

Independent schools are now part of the educational landscape. The Equity in Education Tax Credit provides a tax credit against tuition paid for parents who send their children to one of the approximately 730 independent schools in the province. This tax credit legislation does two very important things for Ontario: First it establishes the primary role of parents in education, and secondly, it acknowledges the validity of independent schools in the educational landscape. Ontario has joined the rest of the Western world in realizing the positive value of educational choice.

Not everyone is pleased, however. In response to the tax credit announcement, there have been persistent calls from the opposition parties and the education establishment demanding “public accountability for public money.” But what does this mean?

Listening to the opposition parties and the teachers’ unions, one gets the impression that public schools are overtly accountable, but that is not the case. These people always speak of the system, the entire number of 3,156 schools, as accountable, but it is immediately obvious that a system with over 3,000 schools cannot be held accountable. To be accountable means to be answerable to someone or something, and to realize consequences for not meeting expectations. It is only recently that Mssrs. Harris and McGuinty acknowledged that some public schools do better than others. That’s public accountability, but the consequences are somewhat of a mystery.

Critics of the tax credit suggest independent schools should be subject to the same rules and regulations as this unwieldy and basically unaccountable public system. Most of the time, teachers and curriculum are cited as examples where public accountability is necessary. What they mean is that all teachers should be certified in Ontario and belong to the unions, and the curriculum should be the same as that required of public schools. In other words, public school teachers ought to be teaching public school curriculum. These critics want all education to be the same. In truth, they really want all students to be the same. Besides being undemocratic, such pigeon-holing does not promote improving education. These people want conformity to their views, not accountability in the constructive sense.

It is a hallmark of democratic society that the receipt of public money warrants accountability. The key, however, is to distinguish between conformity and public reporting. To maintain the integrity of the system where public monies are distributed, it is necessary to have public access to important information. Independent schools should provide readily accessible information about the educational program and other pertinent aspects of the school, so that parents can make informed decisions. This could include information about student achievement and teacher qualifications, for instance.

From a broad perspective, government has a role to play in establishing standards of literacy and civic-mindedness that students can meet in all schools. The Grade 10 Literacy Test is an example of a measurable standard that students can achieve regardless of which school they attend. It is not government’s role to be prescriptive in telling independent schools how they have to do everything. In a recent interview the British Columbia Minister of Education noted that the primary focus of education should be on student results and how schools “get there is their business.” The B.C. minister has it right.

Independent schools are directly accountable to the parents and students they serve. These parents, just like the other parents in the province, expect schools to provide an education that will prepare their children for further education, for the world of work, and for life in general. If a teacher or a school does not measure up, the consequences are immediate because the family has the option to leave the school and find another that meets their expectations. Children are the beneficiaries of this powerful and instant accountability because schools either deliver or disappear.

The greater the intrusion of government requirements, the further we move away from the primary purpose of school choice, which is to bring parents closer to the education of their children. Parents are the best people to make decisions about their children’s education, determining what they will be taught and by whom. The backbone of democratic society is the family and anything government can do to bolster parents raising their children is to be lauded.

The Equity in Education Tax Credit was established, in the words of the minister of finance to “put the needs of parents and students first by offering choice to parents.” It is parents who have the fundamental right and responsibility to direct the education of their children and it is parents to whom schools ought to be accountable. In each independent school of the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools, parents serve on boards and committees that make fundamental decisions about staff hiring and firing, curriculum, codes of behaviour, and educational standards. The consequence of this direct accountability is that schools are very focused on the expectations of all students and parents – to ignore them is to invite an exodus and the possibility of closure. That’s accountability.