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Public-school dominance a problem: think-tank

More choice better for kids, Fraser Institute argues

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Manitoba has the highest non-religious public school enrolment of any province that provides money to private schools -- but that's not necessarily a good thing, says the conservative think-tank the Fraser Institute.

The B.C.-based think-tank issued a report Thursday entitled Measuring Choice and Competition in Canadian Schools, lauding Alberta for the wide range of choice it gives parents.

Manitoba schools have 91.7 per cent of the total nursery-to-Grade 12 enrolment in non-religious anglophone and francophone public schools, the Fraser Institute report said -- Alberta has 71.2 per cent.

Alberta also fully funds anglophone and francophone Catholic public schools, provides higher support to independent schools, funds 13 charter schools within the public system and even pays home-schooling parents $1,641 a child to help cover their costs.

The more choice available to parents, the better their children will do in school, the Fraser Institute said: "The increasing body of research available on the effects of school choice and competition suggests that education is broadly improved when parents have choice and schools are forced to compete."

But Education Minister James Allum sees Manitoba's hefty public school student numbers as a good thing: "It is a parent's choice where they send their children to school, and we think it is wonderful that an overwhelming majority of Manitoba families send their kids to public schools. We believe in a well-funded, strong and accessible public-education system that is equitable and provides a quality education to all of Manitoba's students," Allum said in a statement Thursday.

Manitoba Teachers' Society president Paul Olson was skeptical of the Fraser Institute's conclusions.

"They clearly push a message of privatization and for-profit" in public institutions, Olson said. "There's nothing new here."

Children who purportedly do better in private, religious, or charter situations may do so because they're more affluent and better-fed than the norm, he said.

The think-tank's researchers especially praised Alberta's charter schools.

"Charter schools are autonomous, not-for-profit schools within the public system that provide alternative education programs to complement the public system and generally have greater discretion in selecting curriculum and teaching and learning styles than public schools. In addition, teachers at charter schools are not normally required to be active members of the respective teachers' union," the report said.

Olson countered that charter schools lack open and transparent governance and in their daily operations -- they can refuse children who are outside the demographic group or other criteria of their particular school, he said.

"They're public when they're getting financing, they're not public when they're operating," said Olson.

Manitoba provides public funding to qualified independent schools that request it -- some prefer to be fully independent -- after three years of operation. Such schools receive operating grants of 50 per cent of the per-student spending of the public school division within the borders in which they are located.

The Fraser Institute said Quebec and the four western provinces provide some funding to independent schools, while Ontario and the four Atlantic provinces give no money at all to private schools.

Of the five provinces that do fund private schools, Manitoba has the highest non-religious public-school enrolment.

The entire report can be downloaded by going to http://tinyurl.com/lhu6rad.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 3, 2014 A10

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