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Ontario-based study shows school choice increases academic outcomes

Written on October 24th, 2008

Areas with more choice see higher or faster student improvements, says policy analyst 

A new study examining Ontario’s competition between Catholic and public school systems shows in areas of competition for public funding the education quality in both systems improve.

The study titled “School Choice and the Benefits of Competition: Evidence from Ontario” was released by the
C. D. Howe Institute, a Toronto-based public policy think-tank.

“(Education funding) was obviously a huge policy issue about a year ago,” Ben Dachis, a policy analyst at C. D. Howe Institute, told OACS News. “Everyone’s talking about the cost of having a Catholic school board alongside a public school board.”

He says the study aimed to estimate what student performance benefits there are with two separate systems.

Because public funding is tied to enrolment, schools must improve education quality to attract and retain students where there is competition between Catholic and public schools.

“The results suggest that if all families — rather than just Catholic families — could exercise choice between school systems, the incentives for public school administrators to improve quality would be stronger yet, with potentially significant impacts on student outcomes,” the study says.

“School choice can exist within a fully publicly funded and operated school system.”

Student test scores from elementary schools in the English public and Catholic school system between grades 3 to 6 in the province were examined.

Neighbourhoods with competition are those with a higher population of Catholics (as they have the option to choose between public or Catholic education) and where there are new housing stock indicating residents who are more likely to change schools.

“The areas with more choice see higher or faster improvements of students,” says Dachis.

Test scores in competitive neighbourhoods show Grade 6 students improved their math, reading and writing test scores from 4 to 9 per cent compared to their Grade 3 scores. These results are higher than in low competition areas which had test score improvements less than 0.5 per cent.

“I think it’s a valuable study,” says Barb Bierman, Parents for Educational Choice spokesperson and executive director of the Ontario Federation of Independent Schools.

School choice encourages more parental involvement, as the parent will research which school to have their child attend, she says.

“Because they’ve chosen the school and they are involved in the school likely in ways that is going to see their kid perform better,” says Bierman.

“This study by C.D. Howe shows that greater school choice is the method to improve all education, including public education,” she says.

In other provinces where there is school choice, such as Alberta and British Columbia, the schools are thriving and test scores are higher, Bierman notes. Though Ontario has continued to increase education spending the results in terms of graduates and test scores does not prove that money improves education, she says.

“Money isn’t the answer, so what is the answer to improve education in the province? You are kind of left with school choice with a little bit of competition,” says Bierman.