Ontario families deserve more school choice

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Appeared in the Epoch Times, January 22, 2024
Ontario families deserve more school choice

From 1914 to 1925, if you wanted a Model T Ford, you could only get it in black. The company’s founder, Henry Ford, even famously said “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it’s black.”

At first glance this sounds restrictive, until we remember that customers still had plenty of other options. Not only could they buy a car from one of Ford’s competitors, but they could also use a horse and buggy or buy one of the earlier models produced by Ford.

Thus, far from limiting the choices available to customers, painting all Model Ts black was part of a concerted effort to mass produce cars and make them affordable. Had customers chosen not to buy the Model T, Ford would no doubt have changed his business model.

However, imagine that the government rather than the private sector had handled both manufacturing and the selling of vehicles. Rather than responding to market pressures, the government would likely keep producing the same vehicle for everyone regardless of what people wanted. In this case, painting all cars black would quickly become a visible reminder that the government does a terrible job of providing people with genuine choices.

Sadly, this is exactly how the government-run public school system operates today. In Ontario, the government builds the schools, selects the curriculum and sets the catchment area that determines where students will attend. If parents don’t like their neighbourhood school, they must either move to a different neighbourhood or pay out-of-pocket for their children’s independent school tuition.

While some school boards claim to provide parents with school choice, the choices are often more illusory than real. For example, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) has a limited number of specialty schools in arts, science, math, technology and athletics. Of course, these schools were always oversubscribed, which meant that the TDSB had to create waitlists.

Unfortunately, TDSB trustees voted in 2022 to use a lottery system to decide which students could attend these schools. Not only does this make it harder for these specialty schools to keep high standards, since admission is no longer based on skills or experience, but it also overlooks the obvious urgent need in Toronto for more of these specialty schools.

This demand could easily be met if the province provided education funding directly to parents and let them decide where to enroll their children. There would be no shortage of independent schools created if parents could direct their children’s education funding to the school they want. This small change would take pressure off the public schools while at the same time ensuring that students attend a school that best meets their needs.

Interestingly, TDSB trustees are becoming increasingly aware that parents want more choice. For example, TDSB is proposing to dissolve the admission boundaries for its technical high schools and commercial high schools (which essentially teach business skills) so all students in the city, not just those living in a school’s catchment area, are eligible to attend.

While this is a sensible change, it will likely lead to more demand in these schools than there are spaces available. Because government moves slowly, there’ won’t be a rush to build new technical and commercial high schools, even if there’s a huge demand for them.

This is a prime example of the “school choice” breadcrumbs provided by government school boards. Governments are simply not well-positioned to provide parents with genuine choice. They make changes slowly, are dominated by one-size-fits-all thinking, and are not responsive to market pressures.

We shouldn’t leave school choice in the hands of government bureaucrats. Instead, the Ford government should empower parents by letting them decide where to direct their children’s education funding. This would lead to the private sector stepping in to fill the demand. The result would be more satisfied parents and better educated students.

If Henry Ford wanted to paint all Model Ts black, that was his choice as a private businessowner. Customers could go elsewhere if they wanted a different car. Ontario parents today deserve other options than just government-run public schools. Providing affordable access to independent schools would be a good first step.

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