Saskatchewan unified by school choice

in OPINION by
BY TODD MACKAY

A unifying force is sweeping Saskatchewan and bringing together left and right; rural and urban; First Nations communities and Hutterite colonies; and, of course, Catholics and protestants.

Saskatchewanians are united in the conviction that parents and students have the right to choose their schools.

This explosion of solidarity was sparked by a court ruling suggesting non-Catholic students shouldn’t get public funding to attend Catholic schools.

Reaction was swift.

“We will defend school choice for students and parents,” said Premier Brad Wall.

Defend indeed. Premier Wall is invoking the constitution’s notwithstanding clause to nullify the judicial decision. While using the notwithstanding clause is a big step, there’s bipartisan consensus to resist this ruling.

“We support an appeal moving forward and we support the consideration of invoking the notwithstanding clause,” said NDP leader Trent Wotherspoon.

It’s hard to imagine Premier Wall and Mr. Wotherspoon agreeing on anything, but they’re defending school choice together.

Unsurprisingly, Catholic schools agree.

“We believe we have the right to have an inclusive and welcoming admittance policy,” said Tom Fortosky of the Saskatchewan Catholic School Boards Association.

But Catholic schools aren’t alone.

“Any time you take away education opportunities for any child, it’s not a good decision,” said Bobby Cameron, the chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations.

All of which put the public school board administrators in a very lonely position as they explained why they went to court to limit children’s options of which school to attend.

“It’s important to public schools because we’ve experienced a loss of students; there’s been implications for capital,” said Larry Huber of the Saskatchewan School Board Association.

It’s too bad the public school boards fail to recognize the benefits of competition to ensure accountability and drive innovation. They should look for opportunities for improvement rather than using legal strong-arm tactics. They need to give students reason to choose their schools rather than eliminating other options.

That gets to the essence of this issue. It’s not about confessions of faith or constitutional arguments; capital budgets or bus schedules. It’s about choice.

We need to move beyond defending current choices because this province is behind when it comes to providing parents and students with options.

Right now, there are two fully funded options: public school and Catholic school. Both are good choices for many families. But the province only provides half of the per-student funding for families who pick neither and send their kids to an independent school.

Alberta does better by covering up to 70 per cent of the per-student funding for kids going to independent schools. While Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP government rarely hesitates to overhaul its predecessors’ policies, it’s keeping school choice.

“I have no plans to change that landscape here,” said Alberta Education Minister David Eggen.

Obviously, the Alberta NDP has no interest in uprooting students. Independent schools can engage students by focusing on automotive mechanics or advanced mathematics; arts and culture or First Nations heritage; track-and-field or learning disabilities. The case is obvious for keeping kids connected in schools that pique their interests or meet their needs.

But the Alberta government has another reason for supporting school choice. Alberta spends $13,234 per student in public school. But the Fraser Institute calculates that it only costs taxpayers $5,275 to educate each of the 28,627 students who choose independent schools. That means it would cost the Alberta government millions more if it forced those students to go to public schools.

Despite Mr. Huber’s budgetary worries, the Fraser Institute also reports per-student funding for public education in Saskatchewan has gone up by 39 per cent in a decade and it’s the highest in Canada at more than $14,000. Expanding school choice is an opportunity to both help students and control spending.

Saskatchewanians are taking a unified stand to defend our traditional school choices. It’s time to take the next step. Let’s create a diversity of opportunity that affirms the rights of parents and students to choose the learning environment that fits them best.

Todd MacKay is the Prairie Director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation

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