Friday, February 8, 2008

Believe in human rights? Let parents choose.

I’ve been looking at school choice for a while—on statistical, philosophical and common sense levels—and inevitably someone hits me once a week with a new angle I hadn’t considered.

This week I looked up (okay. North) and, like Newton and the apple, I got schooled.

Nova Scotia’s Chronicle Herald has an op-ed chronicling the pivotal differences between Atlantic area schools and the rest of Canada that have caused their unusually poor student performance. The main difference seems to be their funding policies, and the Nova Scotian writer pokes fun of Atlanic for not getting the school choice memo:

“When compared to most provinces, Atlantic Canadian education is trapped in a unique monopoly funding model, a model closely associated with administrative inefficiency and poor student outcomes.

Many Atlantic area school board members are still unaware of how unusual monopoly funding policies are, and often less aware that publicly funded school choice is the norm in all provinces west of the Maritimes. Choice-based funding is available to over 92 per cent of Canadian students, in school systems that have secured some of the best educational outcomes in the world.

Internationally, Canadian-style choice-based funding is being increasingly cited for the remarkable success of most Canadian students, when compared to the dismal outcomes of the American melting-pot monopoly model. Unfortunately, Atlantic Canada has adopted the American-style funding model – and for our students, tragically similar outcomes.”

Well, okay, my patriotism surges for a bit and I think, okay, so what if we’re not #1 in education—we’re really good at other stuff. Except that without a strong education, in 50 years we’ll look like the twilight of the Roman Empire. Plus that’s my line when I let someone down: “But I’m a good friend in other ways…” But we are doing a lot to work on our public schools, I thought. And then another scolding:

“Funded school choice is the democratic norm not only in most of Canada, but worldwide. With the exception of the U.S., virtually all healthy democratic societies fund school choice – even the former Soviet Union does so. The result of such funding for most Canadians is both real choice for all students and, very importantly, a public school management culture that effectively responds to the competitive pressures of choice-driven school systems.

The pattern that competition brings out the best in public education is not only a Canadian observation. According to OIDEL, an international research organization in Geneva, all top performing countries in the PISA international literacy tests – Finland, Canada (93 per cent), New Zealand, Australia, Ireland and South Korea – fund school choice.”

That’s a compelling argument. IS the reason we’re so far behind on many of the basic educational imperatives because we don’t have universal school choice? I don’t think it’s that simple. We’ve tried a lot of alternatives—tax methods, desegregation, No Child Left Behind, Head Start, not to mention massive spending increases from state and federal budgets—but we’ve never changed the system in which we’re operating, and Canada seems to think that’s the crux of whether students are able to succeed or not.

But, if that wasn’t enough of a gut-punch from our neighbors to the North, this is the real kernel of reckoning:

”Funded school choice is a well-recognized human right. The International Declaration of Human Rights states in article 26.3: "Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children." Article 2 assures choice is a right for all, not just a privilege of those who can afford tuition fees. Funded choice is further reinforced in articles 7, 18, 26, 28 and 30. The human rights law on funding choice is so well-defined that individuals "inciting discrimination" against funded school choice are violating that law (see article 7, DHR) in the same manner as if they were opposed to women voting or advocating the return of slavery.

A host of international human rights laws further protect funded school choice, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and, most importantly, the Convention against Discrimination in Education.”

On a macro level, this is pretty significant. I’ve thought about being able to choose one’s education as a political right, or a civil right—but it is even more basic than that. This article notes that most developed societies fund school choice, and ignoring the human rights law is a choice to preserve bureaucratic control of funding: a choice against student success when it would mean a loss of that control.

And, for you scorekeepers out there, human rights trump all the other types of rights—as in, no one has the right to take them away from any person.

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