U.S. should nix its federal department of education

Test results show Canadian education systems, administered by the provinces, produce better-equipped students than the single U.S. system

VANCOUVER, B.C. Dec. 12, 2016/ Troy Media/ – President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for U.S. secretary of education could well be transformative, particularly with respect to school choice for lower-income families. But it would have been better to dissolve the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) altogether.

Trump has nominated Betsy DeVos, a longtime school choice advocate. She has the potential to reshape federal education policy and similarly influence state-level programs.

But, in fact, the DOE should be dismantled.

Such a suggestion is usually followed by shock, if not something more animated. Eliminating the DOE should not, however, be seen as radical. Rather, it’s a reasonable response to the U.S. experience since creating the department late in the presidency of Jimmy Carter (1977-81).

Evidence why the United States doesn’t need the DOE comes from Canada. Simply put, Canada spends less on kindergarten to Grade 12 education but gets more by decentralizing education decisions to the provinces.

As a share of the economy, Canada and the U.S. spend about the same on kindergarten to Grade 12 education, roughly 3.6 per cent of gross domestic product (2012 data, the latest available). But in dollar terms per student, the U.S. spends quite a bit more than Canada – $11,732 versus $10,224 (currencies are normalized). In other words, the U.S. spends almost 15 per cent more per student than Canada.

And what does this extra spending produce?

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is the most recognized international standardized testing. It’s administered by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Every three years, PISA tests 15-year-olds in reading, mathematical and scientific literacy.

The most recent PISA results show Canada consistently outperforming the U.S. in all subject matters. Indeed, in mathematics and science, the U.S. underperforms Canada and the average for OECD countries, which are basically the world’s industrialized countries. Canada’s strong comparative performance to the U.S. is supported by other international tests such as PIRLS (reading) and TIMSS (math and science).

Tellingly, Canada has no federal department of education. There’s no cabinet position or even a senior bureaucratic position dedicated to education at the federal level. The only area of involvement by the federal government in Canada in kindergarten to Grade 12 education is with First Nations education, and that system has serious failings.

Authority and responsibility for the design, regulation and financing of kindergarten to Grade 12 education is left entirely to the provinces.

The federalist education design in Canada means a multitude of approaches. For example, British Columbia has a provincewide partial voucher program (it covers up to 50 per cent of operating costs) for students attending independent schools.

In Ontario, four public systems – English, French, English Catholic and French Catholic – compete for students, depending on one’s school district. But Ontario provides no support to parents who choose to educate their children at independent schools.

Alberta pursues an all-of-the-above approach. Like Ontario, it allows multiple competing public school systems. It also provides vouchers for up to 70 per cent of the operating costs of independent schools. In addition, it has charter schools and provides financial support for parents who home-school.

The key is that the provinces are free to pursue different approaches to provide, regulate and finance education to their citizens. And hopefully they learn from one another, as is the intent of federalist political systems.

Canada’s decentralized approach to kindergarten to Grade 12 education is a lesson for the U.S. as it embarks on a period of potential sweeping reforms. While DeVos is poised to make great strides in enhancing school choice for Americans, the country would be better served to follow the Canadian model and begin dismantling the DOE.

Jason Clemens is the executive vice-president of the Fraser Institute.

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