About a week ago, another Op-ed piece appeared in The Chronicle Herald about the perceived state of education in Nova Scotia. In this one, recently hired Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) research director, Ben Eisen, touted (in typical AIMS fashion), the glory and joy of charter schools, and how they are not as bad and as detrimental to the public education system as folks like me would have you believe.
Eisen, who has written pieces on such issues as how Canada is not running out of water and how the public service needs to be trimmed, claimed that research has pointed out on several occasions that the establishing of private and independent (charter schools) has been proven not to hurt the public education system.
Choosing a rather slanted (although, quite entertaining) article from a website called Slate.com as the premise for his argument, Eisen stated that criticizing parents who choose private educational options, thus diverting their money from the public coffers, was misguided and unfair. In a nut shell, Eisen was arguing that we should allow charter schools to open in Nova Scotia and parents who chose to opt out of the public system should feel no guilt in doing so.
The touting of independent schools is certainly nothing new for AIMS. They have been preaching from that pulpit for as long as I can remember. Nor is it uncommon for the various and sundry national “think tanks” to take a stand in local media trumpeting the value of school choice. From the Frontier Center for Public Policy to The Fraser Institute, everyone who values an education system that follows a business model of competition and product management loves the idea. Even our own Nova Scotia daily, The Chronicle Herald seems somewhat smitten by the idea. Besides the latest AIMS offering, a recent Op-ed piece, (The subject of a previous post) by the associate publisher of The Herald Magazine stated “A good place to start (to improve our education system) would be to allow for some not-for-profit, tuition-free schools ‘charter schools’ established by community leaders determined to achieve better outcomes.” The paper followed that up with a story about by a local resident, Johanna Mercer, who moved here from Vancouver to establish her own tuition based private school, in part because she could not open a charter.
Now, Ms. Mercer’s testimonial to the power of having small independent schools was certainly an interesting read, and paying $10,000.00 per year in tuition may seem like a small price for some residents of this province, considering her school’s promise of a 10-1 student teacher ratio. As well, despite a number of obvious factual errors, the Herald Magazine piece did speak of a belief, at least, that schools in Nova Scotia need to improve. However, despite this growing “love in” for the charter school model, there are several reasons why this author believes that we should never allow them to darken our educational door.
First and foremost, despite what many media outlets and think tanks seem to believe, Nova Scotia’s education system is doing fine, thank you very much. We continue, despite accusations of inadequacies, to produce doctors and truck drivers, mechanics and engineers, stay at home parents and entrepreneurs. Our graduation rates have generally been increasing since 1999, and have been somewhere around 87% for the last three years.
A second and closely related issue is that as much as folks like Eisen like to hold up Alberta as model to be emulated because it allows for the establishment of charter schools, that province has historically seen some of the worst graduation rates in the country. Eisen writes “Alberta’s policy structure is uniquely friendly to parental choice and independent alternatives to public schools. Student performance in that province consistently ranks among the best in Canada…on widely respected measures of student achievement.” While Alberta may outscore us “on widely respected measures of student achievement” like the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), if those test scores do not translate into higher graduation rates, then one may very well ask what all the fuss is about.
Another common issue with charter schools is that they have offered mixed results, at best. Many in the United States close within the first five years of operation, they tend to expel students at a much higher rate than public schools and even within the realm of standardized testing many do not perform as well as their public counterparts. All this “greatness” is achieved at the expense of public school dollars.
The final issue, of course, is the messenger.
When considering all the information and mixed results achieved by charter schools, one wonders what can possibly be gained by allowing them to open here in Nova Scotia, and why, exactly, AIMS seems so bent on them. The obvious reason, of course, is that charter schools are often staffed by non-unionized teachers who are paid less and have fewer benefits than their unionized counterparts. Considering Eisen’s history of attacks against the public sector, having fewer tax payer dollars going into worker’s pockets is probably a rather attractive option, regardless of how students are served.
AIMS are a fairly wealthy, award winning institution that represents incredible potential to actually apply policy pressure for positive change. I had hoped that, with the hiring of Eisen, we might see a new direction from them; one that saw AIMS working as a partner alongside the rest of Nova Scotia to move us forward as a province. Instead, we have the same old tired rhetoric from them, and the trumpeting of solutions that do nothing to help students thrive.
If AIMS truly wants to help this province move along, they could, under true leadership, stop focusing on cheaper ways of educating the 87% of kids who do graduate, and help us find better ways to help the 13% who do not.
Now that would be a headline well worth reading.