Public education fails special needs students

Give parents school choice

December 7, 2012

CALGARY, AB, Dec. 7, 2012/ Troy Media/ – In reference to a Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, mother, frustrated by a lack of resources within the public education system for early literacy intervention programs for her sons, Paula Simons of the Edmonton Journal posed the question, ‘Who decides what constitutes adequate special education?’ (Edmonton Journal, Nov. 14, 2012).

The answer ought to be that the very same parents who front the bill to pay for the public education system in Alberta and other provinces across Canada, ought to have more say in how they’re children are educated. In a roundabout way, a Supreme Court of Canada decision released recently may provide the impetus for this to happen.

In Moore v. British Columbia (Education), an unanimous decision, the Supreme Court of Canada decided that the North Vancouver School district had to reimburse the parents of Jeffrey Moore for some $100,000 they had spent on his private school education consisting of a specialized program for severe dyslexia. According to the Supreme Court, the North Vancouver school board, which eliminated a learning disabilities support program due to a budget crisis in the 1990s, discriminated against Jeffrey, on the basis of his disability, by failing to provide a comparable education within the public school system, contrary to the British Columbia Human Rights Code.

As Simons pointed out in her article, this single court decision has the potential to give every student a right to intensive remedial support beyond what’s made available in ‘special ed’ classes. In fact, if the court decision is taken to its logical conclusion, it would seem that every student now has a right to private tutored education like the kind Jeffrey Moore received and the B.C. government must now pay for it. After all, the purpose of public education in B.C., according to Justice Rosalie Abella who wrote the Supreme Court decision, is to give all students (emphasis on the ‘all’) the opportunity to develop to their fullest potential.

In rejecting the concept of equal opportunity in favour of trying to guarantee equality of outcome, Abella has tasked school boards with a mission impossible. School boards have limited taxpayer-funded resources from which to pay for public education. Imposing a guarantee of equal outcomes for each and every student may ultimately require unlimited financial resources. The Supreme Court has set an impossible goal to achieve within the confines of the current public education system, one which could bankrupt any government that even attempted it.

Nevertheless, according to Abella, ‘It goes without saying that if the district wishes to avoid similar claims such as those Jeffrey brought, it will have to ensure that it provides a range of services for special needs students in accordance with the School Act and its related policies’. But why stop at special needs students? One way to avoid an outburst of litigation across this country from disgruntled parents who understandably want the best education for their children that the public education system can afford, is to offer all parents, not just those with special needs children, school choice.

School choice refers to a wide variety of programs aimed at providing families with the opportunity to choose the school their children attend. School choice often manifests itself in a variety of ways including open enrollment whereby students can attend other public schools not within their geographic default area, private schools (of which Canada has many), charter schools, and tax credits and deductions for school-related expenses such as homeschooling.

School choice does not mean parents pay for the cost of educating their children (beyond the taxes they already provide to the government). Like the current system, the government funds education through taxes but doesn’t necessarily run the schools it funds, as is the case with charter schools in Alberta. Moreover, governments could offer vouchers or other tax credits for parents to pay for tuition at private schools.

U.S. and International evidence shows that, with school choice, the cost of educating each student is lower, effectively saving cash-strapped provincial governments money. At the same time, the same evidence, including evidence from Alberta where a small number of charter schools exist, demonstrates that school choice raises the quality of schools, increasing parent and student satisfaction, all the while assisting those families most in need of help by offering a wide array of niche programming otherwise unavailable in the ‘cookie-cutter’ public education system.

Unfortunately, the Jeffrey Moores of Canada have been and will continue to be ill-served by the very system trying (but failing) to help them. The one-size-fits-all approach of the public education system failed Jeffrey Moore. The Supreme Court got this much right. However, fixing the problem lies in giving the parents who pay taxes to fund public education, greater school choice.

Chris Schafer is the executive director of the Canadian Constitution Foundation.

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