As our children approach schooling age my partner and I have begun to research the options available to us for educating them. We are skeptical of the efficacy of conventional public schools here in Ontario and we would like to learn more about these schools so that we may be better informed when it comes time to make that important decision: do we take the cheap-and-easy option and send our kids to public school, or do we make the expensive-and-time-consuming choice for an alternative such as private school or home-schooling?
N.A. MacEachern refuses to offer any useful information
To this end my partner contacted our local public school, N.A. MacEachern, to book an appointment to view a class in session and/or speak with a teacher at the school—pretty basic stuff, really. It’s the kind of thing one might expect any responsible parent to ask of the place to which they are expected to send their children for 35 hours each week, year after year.
To our surprise, the school’s principal, Ms. Raymond, denied us on both counts. We cannot view a class in session because such a viewing is a violation of privacy. We cannot talk to a teacher because, as Ms. Raymond says, “we don’t want our teachers to feel like they’re being interviewed.”
Keenly aware of the danger of making a nuisance of ourselves to the school’s administration, my partner tactfully asked the principal for suggestions as to how we might learn more about the school, given that she shot down both our ideas. To assuage our concerns about the quality of education at N.A. MacEachern, Ms. Raymond suggests that we view the province-wide elementary school curriculum and judge for ourselves. She also suggests that we adopt an ex post facto approach to the decision: put our children in public school, then pull them out if we discover that we are not satisfied.
Attacking a straw man
Clearly, Ms. Raymond has thrown us a straw man. It is now my solemn duty to demolish it in public.
First of all, referring us to the province-wide curriculum is incredibly insulting. To put this suggestion into perspective, suppose you want to buy a house and imagine a seller telling you, “You don’t need to see the house or talk to me. You can learn everything you need to know about this house just by looking at the Building Code of Ontario.”
Second, Ms. Raymond’s advocacy of ex post facto decision making is ridiculous. It is terribly disruptive to a child to put her into a new school only to yank her out again. Moreover, private schools will not hold a place for the child just in case the public system doesn’t work out (unless her parents are willing to pay tuition to keep the place open). Clearly, it’s much better for all parties if the parents can do their research ahead of time and avoid these pitfalls. Given that these facts are obvious to everyone, how could Ms. Raymond possibly have offered her suggestion to us with a straight face?
Public schools have cornered the market
How can N.A. MacEachern expect to win our business if the school offers us no way to evaluate its product? Oh, wait. They don’t need to win our business—they already have it by force of law.
Our tax dollars are used to pay our children’s tuition at a public school regardless of whether we actually send them to one. This subsidy gives public schools a grossly unfair advantage in the competition against alternatives. Faced with a decision between paying once for a crappy education and paying twice for a good one, cash-strapped parents will opt for the crap. We all suffer for it.
Even worse, in Waterloo (as in many other places in North America) the school to which a child is sent is dictated by the postal address of that child’s parents. This lack of choice fosters an attitude of belligerence and entitlement in the administrators of our public schools. Don’t like what we have to offer? Too bad! I guess you’ll have to shell out for a private school, or quit your job and home-school your children. Good luck, sucker! Thanks for your tax dollars.
In Saskatoon, public schools actually compete
I happen to know that in Saskatoon parents are free to send their children to any public school they wish and that public schools are funded on a per-student basis. As a result, public schools in that city fall all over themselves to attract students, and that means engaging with parents.
It’s amazing how quickly concerns over privacy disappear when schools must compete to win students: every last public school in Saskatoon is happy to arrange viewings of in-session classes for prospective parents. Similarly, if there are any teachers in Saskatoon who don’t like the feeling of being “interviewed” by parents, they’ve learned to suck it up for the sake of their schools.
The comparison between Saskatoon and Waterloo is very stark. It’s amazing what a little competition can do to improve the the availability of information about a given public school. As a bonus, parents in Saskatoon have greater freedom to choose the best education for their children. Why won’t Waterloo do the same for its children?
When schools compete, children win
At a bare minimum, Ontario should follow Saskatoon’s lead and offer parents more than one public school option. Given that competition works so well to improve parents’ access to information, I can’t help but wonder what miracles might evolve if schools were free to compete along other dimensions, too. For example, I can’t even imagine the possibilities that would open up if government would only stop dictating curriculum. And why does government stack the deck against alternatives to public school? Our choices are severely limited, and needlessly so. Schools ought to compete with one another in as many dimensions as possible.
[Thanks to Greta James for proofreading an earlier draft and for suggesting the clever comparison to the Ontario Building Code.]