Doretta Wilson wasn’t at all surprised to see Ontario education workers’ recent strike action shut down schools for a couple of days. The former executive director for the Society for Quality Education, Wilson’s been advocating for change in the system since the days when education unions were taking issue with the Liberal government of Premier David Peterson in the 1980s.

“This is nothing new. This happens every negotiation,” says Wilson, reflecting on the long saga of education strife in the province, in an interview with True North.

“We’ve got to get around all of this constant labour strife. The way to do that is to offer some competition in the system and school choice is that competition,” says Wilson.

The thinking is that more choice allows parents who can’t afford private schools the ability to depart the current rigid public system if they’re unhappy with the quality of it or the way labour negotiations are empowered to hold kids hostage. The public boards will then be encouraged to up their game if they know there is competition.

Wilson has been a proponent of school choice for decades — pointing out how there were hopes of it happening in the Mike Harris Progressive Conservative government as well as rumours of it in the works under the Dalton McGuinty Liberal government. But it never came to pass.

“My belief is that it stopped because the unions control education in Ontario,” Wilson observes.

How school choice can work in Ontario, is the government grants charters for independent schools to open and funds them on an amount that’s set per student.

“School choice isn’t just about sending kids to private schools,” Wilson explains. “Alberta has chartered schools. They’re public schools, it’s just that they operate independently from the regular school system.”

Alberta long capped the number of charter schools in the province to 15, but as demand grew former Premier Jason Kenney’s government recently expanded the number. The charter school model has been applied in the United States, United Kingdom, Sweden and other countries.

“Charter schools were originally started in the United States by teachers so teachers would have the freedom to teach methods that they knew would work,” Wilson says, adding that such schools are often specialized, whether it involves a focus on a particular subject (say, STEM-based or arts-based) or one more rooted in a particular religion.

The past few days in Ontario have seen education union activists offer aggressive critiques on social media of school choice and claim that Ontario Premier Doug Ford plans to somehow privatize the education system. 

“The reason teachers’ unions don’t like them is because they’re not unionized,” Wilson adds. “They have much more freedom and flexibility in how they operate.”

Wilson points out that in practice charter schools are more accountable than public schools in that they can lose their charter license if they run afoul of financial rules or academic achievement. “When have we ever brought any public school board or school to task for not being financially or academically accountable?” she says.

But while school choice may seem like a no-brainer to anyone outside of the education union message machine, a source familiar with government thinking on the matter told True North that the Ford government is not in fact currently planning to implement school choice.

It looks like real change will only happen once the people demand it.

“We’ll continue to go through [these strikes] until there’s an alternative,” says Doretta Wilson.