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.