Government monopoly on curriculum limits school choice

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Appeared in the Epoch Times, March 27, 2023
Government monopoly on curriculum limits school choice

Suppose you lived in a neighbourhood with several different grocery stores. If you don’t like what one store has to offer, you can just shop elsewhere. At first glance, it sounds like you have many choices. But let’s also suppose that each grocery store is required by the government to have an identical layout and stock the same food brands. Now your options seem much more limited. That’s because genuine choice only exists when there are real differences between the available stores. It doesn’t matter how many choices you can make when all options are essentially the same.

The same is true for school choice. Parents in each province have the option of sending their kids to public schools or independent schools. Half of the provinces provide partial funding to independent schools, which makes this option more affordable for parents.

However, this support comes with a significant caveat. To be eligible for government funding, independent schools must implement the government-mandated curriculum and must hire provincially certified teachers. This limits the effectiveness of school choice since it forces most independent schools into the same box.

Consider what’s happening in British Columbia. While B.C. has a higher percentage of students enrolled in independent schools than any other province, it also imposes strict requirements, including the government-mandated curriculum, on schools that receive government funding.

And B.C. recently revamped its curriculum—and definitely not in a good way.

According to a promotional brochure from the province, B.C.’s new curriculum places “more emphasis on the deeper understanding of concepts and the application of processes than on the memorization of isolated facts and information.” This statement introduces a false dichotomy between understanding and knowledge. Contrary to what B.C.’s Ministry of Education thinks, students should commit a large number of facts to memory because background knowledge is essential for reading comprehension. And reading comprehension is essential for success in all other subjects.

Thus, B.C.’s government-mandated curriculum does a disservice to students. In reality, students need a knowledge-rich curriculum, not yet another iteration of the outdated and largely ineffective ideas espoused by early 20th century education professor William Heard Kilpatrick. Sadly, the consultants who wrote B.C.’s new curriculum apparently think Kilpatrick’s progressive education philosophy deserves yet another go.

It’s bad enough to impose this new curriculum on public schools. But independent schools must also implement the same curriculum if they wish to receive partial funding from the government.

Of course, some say independent schools should simply forgo government funding. But things aren’t quite that simple. Contrary to what many people assume, independent schools are not merely the purview of the wealthy. In fact, more than 90 per cent of independent schools in B.C. are “non-elite” where the families have (on average) approximately the same after-tax income as families with children in public schools. This means that many parents make significant financial sacrifices to enroll their children in independent schools. The last thing these families need is to pay even higher tuition fees because their school no longer receives government funding.

Again, forcing independent schools to implement the government-mandated curriculum undermines their ability to provide students with a genuine alternative to public school. It also limits the choices available to parents.

There’s nothing wrong with the province declaring what specific content and skills all students should master. However, there’s something seriously wrong with imposing a curriculum based on a faulty educational theory. While independent schools obviously do their best within the inferior government-mandated curriculum, it would make far more sense to let them use a different curriculum.

When it comes to providing their children with a quality education, parents in B.C. deserve the widest range of choices possible. There’s no need for a government monopoly on curriculum, particularly when there are better options available. More choice is a good thing—whether we’re talking about grocery stores or schools. Let’s make sure we don’t unreasonably restrict the choices available to parents.

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