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OP-ED: More parental involvement in Alberta schools will benefit students

Alberta, like New Brunswick and Saskatchewan, will soon require schools to get parental consent before officially changing the name or pronoun of a student under age 15, thanks to new policies announced by Premier Danielle Smith. And schools must notify parents before students are taught about gender, sexuality and sexual orientation, so parents can opt in or opt out.

Reaction to the policies, which also include a ban on gender reassignment surgery for kids 17 and under, was fast and furious. Prime Minister Trudeau decried them while federal Employment Minister Randy Boissonnault described them as a “NATO moment” where an attack on one community’s rights should be viewed as an attack on everyone’s rights.

Clearly, these issues polarize Canadian politicians. But a wide, consistent body of empirical evidence shows that parental involvement improves student achievement and general wellbeing. Obviously this involvement should not end once children set foot in a school building.

But whatever your view on the Alberta government’s new rules, there’s no denying the inherent problems of a government monopoly on education, from which parents are largely excluded.

According to the latest statistics, 93.8 per cent of Alberta students attend government schools (though the share of students in government schools is decreasing). The provincial government creates the curriculum, hires the teachers and sets education policy. Even independent schools and charter schools won’t receive provincial funding unless they follow the provincial curriculum and hire government-certified teachers.

But this monopoly raises the stakes in every education debate because when most students attend government schools, and the government makes a decision affecting government schools, some parents will win while others will lose. Whenever a controversial social issue arises, school officials will inevitably upset some parents. That’s why it’s important to provide parents with as much school choice as possible. And there’s more the Alberta government can do to increase school choice.

Alberta parents can already enroll their children in schools of their choice including government public schools, independent schools, charter schools or homeschooling, although independent schools and homeschooling typically require some financial sacrifice from parents even after government funding. To expand access to all types of schools, particularly for lower-income families, the government should ensure that adequate provincial funding follows students to schools of their choice. Children and families are not one-size-fits all, so government shouldn’t force everyone into the same mold.

The same can be said for the curriculum. The government could mandate essential academic standards rather than enforcing one curriculum, and give schools more flexibility to innovate. Ensuring that all students can read, write and do basic math makes sense—forcing schools to adopt the latest social justice fads does not.

Because government public schools are meant to serve everyone, they must be as non-political as possible. This means that teachers must leave their personal political views at home and focus on educating their students. If they cannot do this, they should find a different career.

While most people recognize that parents are entitled to make decisions for their children, not all parents desire to have the same level of involvement. But it certainly makes sense for all parents to have the ability to be involved and informed about what’s happening at school.

The best way to avoid turning schools into political battlegrounds is to give maximum choice and flexibility to parents. Within the goalposts of academic standards, parents should decide where and how their children are educated. Parental involvement helps students. In terms of the research, there’s nothing controversial about that. Students and their parents deserve a school system that is less political and more flexible.

When governments make tough decisions, they’ll never please everyone. But if the Smith government wants to satisfy the widest swath of parents, it should increase the school options available to them.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and senior fellow with the Fraser Institute. Paige MacPherson is associate director of education policy studies at the Fraser Institute.

OP-ED: Teachers should prioritize teaching over union activism

Suppose you asked a group of teachers why they entered the profession. What types of answers are you likely to get?

Most of them will talk about their love of teaching students. Some wanted to be teachers from a young age while others decided to enter the profession later in life. Either way, teachers are united by a common desire to be a force for good in the lives of children.

What you will not hear is that their main motivation was to become foot soldiers in the broader labour movement. Standing in front of a classroom is a lot more rewarding than standing on a picket line. For teachers in government-run schools where union membership is mandatory, they have no choice but to become union members. In other words, they joined the union because they wanted to teach, not the other way around.

Someone needs to remind Ontario union leaders of this basic fact.

Because there’s a real risk of a major teacher strike in Ontario this fall. Three out of the four teacher unions covering government-run schools plan to hold strike votes. If these votes pass, teachers could soon be on the picket line while students sit at home once again.

Fortunately, one union, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), has chosen a different path. The province’s public high school teachers recently voted in favour of a deal with the province and their union to avoid a strike and keep students in class.

Sadly, instead of following the OSSTF’s example, the other three unions issued have flatly rejected binding arbitration. Instead, they’re continuing with their strike votes. It’s unlikely, however, they’ll get a better deal by striking. If the province was willing to legislate education support workers back to work last year, it will almost certainly do the same to teachers if necessary.

But consider this. Many of the arguments against binding arbitration focus on what’s best for the broader labour movement rather than on the day-to-day realities of the classroom. Insisting that teachers must be prepared to walk off the job even when they can get a better deal through binding arbitration shows what can happen when teachers put union activism ahead of their teaching responsibilities.

Ironically, some union activists openly acknowledge that binding arbitration would likely get teachers a better financial deal, yet still insist that teachers should go on strike to show solidarity with the broader labour movement. It’s bad enough when teachers put politics ahead of their students; it’s downright foolish if they strike just to show solidarity with other unions.

Keep in mind that not all teachers across the country currently have the right to strike. In Manitoba, for example, bargaining impasses are settled through binding arbitration. This arrangement has worked well for Manitoba teachers since their average salaries are higher than those of teachers in most other provinces. In addition, Manitoba teachers receive similar benefits compared to teachers in other provinces.

I’m now in my 24th year as a Manitoba public school teacher. Not having to worry about the possibility of a strike means I can focus on my work as a teacher and not on union activism. I’ve never had to walk a picket line, nor have I faced a loss of pay from a lengthy strike. Except for the last few years of unusually high inflation, annual salary increases throughout my career have generally kept pace with the cost of living.

Ontario teachers would do well to accept the provincial government’s offer of binding arbitration. Not only will it likely get them a better deal, it will also give students and parents peace of mind knowing that schools will remain open. This option is much better than a prolonged strike. Teachers belong in the classroom, not on the picket line.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and a senior fellow with the Fraser Institute.

ZWAAGSTRA: More money for teachers won’t make public schools better  

“Please sir, I want some more.” This famous line comes from Charles Dickens’ classic novel, Oliver Twist. Set in mid-19th century England, Dickens vividly depicted the extreme poverty experienced by London’s many orphans. Readers naturally sympathize with the young orphan who just wants a little more food. As they should. These orphans needed a lot more, not just a little.

Unfortunately, Canadian teacher unions seem to think that they’re the 21st century incarnation of Oliver Twist. Hardly a month goes by without a union leader demanding more money. Of course, they try to make it look like they are advocating for students.

For example, the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation is loudly denouncing the Saskatchewan government’s recent announcement of an extra $40 million for public education. In the federation’s view, that number is “missing a zero.” Meanwhile, the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation panned their province’s latest budget because it lacked targeted funding to hire more teachers. 

It’s a similar story in other provinces. No matter how much money provincial governments pour into public education, teacher unions, like Oliver Twist, always want more. However, unlike Oliver Twist, they have no idea how much more would be enough to satisfy them.

Clearly, teacher unions fail to realize there’s only so much money to go around. Every dollar used to hire more teachers or increase their salaries is money that must come from somewhere else—either by cutting other services or raising taxes on the public. It’s easy for an interest group to demand more money when they don’t have the responsibility of figuring out where that money will come from.

In addition, no province has actually cut education spending. While spending increases haven’t fully kept pace with the unusually high inflation rates over the last couple of years, school boards across the country still receive more money than they did before. Besides, if increases in education spending are supposed to be linked with inflation, then provinces spent far too much when they gave three per cent (or higher) salary increases to teachers in years when inflation was much lower.

The problem is that we have a bureaucratically dominated education system where there’s little to no accountability for outcomes. And salaries comprise the vast majority of education spending. Thus, salaries and benefits will invariably gobble up any spending increases. 

Therefore, there’s no reason to assume that more money will lead to better results. No one seriously thinks, for example, that paying teachers five per cent more results in a five per cent improvement in academic achievement. Nor is it reasonable to assume that simply hiring more teachers will fix the problem, particularly since there’s no guarantee that these new teachers will be good at their jobs.

Obviously, it’s important to ensure that teachers are fairly compensated. However, Canadian teachers are paid quite well by international standards. In fact, Canadian teacher salaries are generally much higher than those of their American counterparts. It would be foolish indeed to pour more money into the education system without a clear plan to get better results.

So, instead of protecting the existing system, we should empower families. Provinces should decide how much money to spend on each student (with a higher allotment for students with special needs) and then let parents use that money to enroll their children in the schools of their choice—whether it’s a public school, charter school or independent school. Then hold these schools accountable with regular standardized tests.

No longer would school boards be able to pad their roster with consultants or blow money on professional development sessions of questionable value. By giving parents the ability to remove their children—and take their funding with them—school boards would have to become more responsive to parents and more careful with their spending.

More money is not the solution. Spending it more wisely is. The next time teacher unions say that they want some more, we need to give them a firm no. They get plenty already.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute.

OP-ED: Ford government should increase school choice in Ontario

The Ontario government wants to promote diversity. That’s why it’s made “equity” and “inclusion” a key focus in K-12 schools. However, if Ontario wants to actually promote diversity in education, it should help increase school choice and expand the educational options available to parents.

Unlike Quebec and the four Western provinces, Ontario does not fund independent schools, which means parents who wish to enroll their children in a non-government school must pay the full cost of tuition (along with their regular taxes that pay for the public school system). In essence, they pay twice for their children’s education.

This might not be a problem for wealthier families who can easily afford high tuition fees, but it’s not so simple for middle- and lower-income families. As a result, only 6.9% of Ontario students attend independent schools compared to 13.2% in British Columbia and 11.7% in Quebec. The partial funding of independent schools by these provinces makes this option more affordable for many parents.

Importantly, when provinces fund independent schools, they do so based on enrollment. Thus, it’s more accurate to say that money follows the student because independent schools only receive funds if parents choose to send their children there. Clearly, independent schools meet an important need for many families and should remain available as an option.

Another positive reform would be to follow Alberta’s lead and allow the creation of charter schools. Contrary to what many people assume, charter schools are not independent schools but are rather autonomous, not-for-profit schools within the public system. And they’re non-sectarian, cannot charge tuition, and must be open to all students.

Charter schools have proven to be quite successful in Alberta. Some charter schools, such as Foundations for the Future Charter Academy in Calgary, provide a traditional back-to-basics approach, while others, such as Boyle Street Education Centre in Edmonton, focus on alternative programs targeting at-risk youth. With the recent decision by the Alberta government to lift the cap on charter schools, the number of these schools—and the number of students enrolled in them—will continue to grow in that province.

There are also good reasons why Ontario parents might want to remove their children from the government-run school system. In far too many cases, public school boards have been captured by woke ideology.

Look no further than the Halton District School Board where a teacher wearing giant Z-cup prosthetic breasts is allowed to teach classes. By not enforcing professional standards for teachers, this school board became an international embarrassment. One wonders how any learning could possibly take place in this teacher’s classes.

Other public school boards have also descended into the absurd. Whether it’s the blatant pushing of critical race theory in the Waterloo Region District School Board, the serious violent incidents in Toronto schools, or the multiple attempts by an Ottawa trustee to impose mask mandates on students, parents are right to wonder what their children are learning during the day. It certainly doesn’t look like these school boards are focused on the academic basics.

Lest one think that the separate (Catholic) school system is any better, many of these school boards are equally influenced by woke ideology. Case in point—a Grade 11 student in the Renfrew Catholic School Board was recently suspended for objecting to his school’s policy of allowing transgender students to use the washroom of their choice. In other words, this Catholic student is no longer allowed to attend his Catholic high school because he refuses to stay silent about his Catholic religious beliefs.

Considering all the craziness going on in Ontario government schools (both public and separate), it’s no surprise that many parents are desperately looking for other options. Instead of forcing almost all students into the same government school box, it makes far more sense to provide more educational options to parents who could then choose the school that best meets their needs. Ontario families deserve better. Providing school choice to parents would a great first step.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute.

OP-ED: Parents should be able to opt out of ‘woke’ schools

When it comes to academic achievement, Canada is losing ground. That’s what results on the Programme for International Assessment (PISA) tests over the last 20 years show us.

While students in other G7 countries have stable or improving scores in math, science and reading, Canada’s scores are steadily declining. The steepest declines occurred in math, and this should concern all parents. Clearly, something must be done to reverse this trend.

One might think that this would lead to school boards doubling down on the academic basics. Sadly, many school administrators have something else in mind. They think students actually need more diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training.

For example, at a recent public budget meeting, the superintendent of a large Winnipeg school division emphasized that he would not reduce the nearly $1 million that his division spends on DEI programs every year. “We want our children to be anti-racist because you’re either a racist, or you’re an anti-racist,” he said. “I repeat: ‘You’re either a racist, or you’re an anti-racist, there is no other option,’ and that’s at the heart of the DEI initiative.”

In other words, this superintendent believes that DEI is at the heart of what schools are supposed to do. He’s far from the only one. Woke ideology has become dominant in school boards across the country. Students are now subjected to ongoing lessons about the perils of white privilege, systemic racism and heterosexism. They also learn to see everything through the lens of race, gender and sexual orientation.

Meanwhile, students continue to fall further behind academically. When even objective subjects such as math are co-opted by woke ideologues, the academic achievement of students is not going to improve anytime soon.

This is why school choice is more important than ever. If public schools are going to subject students to woke ideology, parents should be able to send their children elsewhere. Allowing money to follow students to the school of their choice would be an effective way of putting power back in the hands of parents.

Of course, if some parents truly agree that DEI programming is the most important thing that schools do, then they’re welcome to keep their kids in these schools. However, there’s mounting evidence that many parents are dissatisfied with what public schools are doing.

It would also be nice if all provinces allowed for the creation of charter schools, which are public schools that operate independently from school boards. Currently, Alberta is the only province with charter schools. With lengthy wait lists at many of these schools, charter schools are clearly filling an important need.

If public school boards wish to avoid a mass exodus of students, they must take parental concerns more seriously than they do now. Instead of turning public schools into indoctrination centres, teachers should be politically neutral. Teachers have no business using their position of influence to try to change their students’ beliefs. Rather, they should provide an excellent academic education to all students.

In reality, parents send their children to school to get educated—not to be indoctrinated. One of the fastest ways to lose the trust of a community is to push teachers to turn students into political activists. If students decide on their own that they wish to get involved in politics or attend protest rallies, they should be free to do so. But it should not be because they felt pressured by teachers or school administrators.

Unfortunately, many school board offices have become echo chambers for woke ideology. Genuine diversity isn’t about putting up pride flags, promoting critical race theory or reciting land acknowledgements. Rather, it’s about respecting the fact that students come from all walks of life and acknowledging that not everyone thinks the same way.

It’s time school boards start focusing on their core mandate—academic instruction. If they won’t do this, then at least make it easier for parents to enroll their children elsewhere. The last thing we need in Canada is another 20 years of academic decline.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute.

OP-ED: Erasing Canadian history is a bad idea

As part of the ever-accelerating agenda to cancel all things deemed offensive, Sir John A. Macdonald’s name and likeness is rapidly disappearing from the public square. Even though he was Canada’s first prime minister and key architect of Confederation, his statues are being taken down and his name removed from buildings, particularly schools.

Macdonald’s critics argue that his role in establishing Indigenous residential schools and his racist views disqualify him from any place of honour in Canada today.

But here’s the problem. If you cancel Macdonald, why stop with him? If we judge 19th century people by 21st century standards, many historical Canadians held unacceptable views. Which is why a whole lot of other buildings will soon need new names.

For example, trustees for the Thames Valley District School Board in London, Ontario, recently voted to rename 12 schools named after historical figures with ties to racism or colonialism including Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Queen Victoria, Lord Elgin, Lord Nelson, Louis-Joseph de Montcalm and others. 

Sadly, it isn’t surprising to see Wilfrid Laurier on this list. While he’s considered one of Canada’s greatest prime ministers, he also held racist views evidenced by the fact that his government expanded Indigenous residential schools and enacted discriminatory immigration policies. If Macdonald deserves cancellation, so does Laurier.

And there’s no reason to stop with former prime ministers. Several major Canadian cities (Victoria, Regina, Prince Albert) are named after Queen Victoria or one of her immediate relatives, yet the woke trustees at Thames Valley apparently believe students will be traumatized by attending Victoria Public School.

Why? Because Queen Victoria and other British officials such as Lord Elgin and Lord Nelson represent British colonialism. But one wonders how long it will take Thames Valley trustees to realize in what fair city their school board resides. Hopefully, this discovery won’t be too traumatic for them.

Perhaps the most surprising name on the list is Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, the French general who tried to defend Quebec City from British attack during the famous Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759. One could argue that naming a school in London, Ontario, after a major French general is an honourable gesture. Of course, since Montcalm lived during the 18th century, his personal views were likely even more unacceptable than those held by people living in the 19th century.

Today, Thames Valley’s renaming project will not be cheap. The board plans to hold a series of community engagement sessions with an estimated cost of $47,000. Of course, this doesn’t include the cost of new signage for each building nor the opportunity cost of trustees spending time renaming things rather than, say, improving academic achievement. 

More importantly, schools are supposed to educate students about our history, not erase it. By naming schools after major historical figures, we ensure that these individuals are not forgotten. By erasing their names, the Thames Valley trustees apparently want students to remain ignorant about our past.

Fortunately, there’s a better option.

Instead of renaming schools, we should educate students about the legacy behind their current names and make sure students know about both the good and the bad things these people did, along with an understanding of historical context. In other words, use these names as teaching opportunities, now and in the future. 

By keeping the names of historical Canadians on schools, we don’t endorse racism or colonialism. But rather we recognize that Canada’s history is sometimes messy and that our past prime ministers, monarchs, generals and governors general were real people with strengths and weaknesses. They were, as we are now, people of their times.

Students must learn more about Canadian history, not less. Let’s not rename buildings or tear down statues to satisfy ill-conceived notions of social justice in contemporary times.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and a senior fellow with the Fraser Institute.

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