Dismal test results should prompt New Brunswick government to increase school choice

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Appeared in the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, January 19, 2024
Dismal test results should prompt New Brunswick government to increase school choice

According to recent provincewide student assessment results, reading scores in New Brunswick have declined, with approximately four in 10 students “below appropriate achievement” while approximately half of the students did not meet the standard in math. And despite some modest improvements in science, approximately one quarter of New Brunswick’s English students did not meet the standard.

These substandard test results are not a new problem. Consider past results of the Programme for International Assessments (PISA), the gold standard of international student testing, where New Brunswick students ranked last in Canada in reading and science, and sixth in math. And the most recent results, where New Brunswick test scores dropped dramatically.

So, what’s to be done?

Three words—expand school choice. School choice is the ability for families to affordably choose different schooling options including independent schools, autonomous charter schools and homeschooling. While high-income families can choose any school for their child, lower- and middle-income families often cannot afford school tuition so their child must attend their local government-run public school, regardless of whether it’s a good fit or not.

School choice introduces competition, creating stronger incentives for schools—both government and independent—to improve and innovate. According to recent research, greater school choice leads to improved outcomes in all school types (in other words, for all students).

And again, in addition to improved outcomes, school choice allows parents greater flexibility to choose educational options best suited for their child’s needs. For example, independent schools, which offer a range of different focus areas, create diverse options for students such as enriched academics or performing arts. Many independent schools also cater to students with learning disabilities and are a better fit than the one-size-fits-all government-run public system.

Unfortunately, New Brunswick families don’t have affordable school choice, unlike many other provinces. Half of the provinces in Canada—including Quebec and all four western provinces—allow parents to direct some of their education tax dollars to independent schools, thereby reducing the cost of independent school tuition for families. In other words, the money follows students to the school they choose.

This only makes sense. When parents in these other provinces choose independent schools, they relieve the government-run public system of the cost of educating their child. Unfortunately, very few such options exist for New Brunswick parents.

Why does this matter? Because students can thrive when they attend schools that best meets their needs. British Columbia not only has a greater share of kids attending independent schools, they also have better student achievement overall, outperforming New Brunswick students across the board in reading, math and science. In 2019-20, the latest year of available data, only 1 per cent of New Brunswick students attended independent schools, the lowest rate in Canada, compared to 13.2 per cent in B.C.

While New Brunswick’s recent test scores are a serious concern, there are policy options available. The evidence is clear—children are best served by choice in the school system. New Brunswick should open up the education system so families of all income levels can benefit from the school choice available other parts of Canada.

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