A truism in establishing policies, as in life, is that it is better to fix problems sooner rather than later. In education, it is better to address the problems that children have in learning as soon as possible, rather than wait until they become serious. Nevertheless, thousands of parents often wait far too long, and then pay millions of dollars beyond what they already pay in educational taxes, for private tutors and educational agencies to do what public schools have already been paid to do.
To make parents, particularly poor parents, pay twice for the same schooling, once in the public system and then in private agencies providing remedial services, is simply unfair. To end this unfairness, provincial governments should enact legislation that empowers parents by forcing school boards to pay for the remedial education of any student assessed as being below standard (say, two or more grades below grade level). In other words, the cost of the remediation would be provided by school boards and not by parents, as is currently the case. The remediation could be provided by any independent agency--tutors, Sylvan Learning Centres, etc.
Why support private agencies with public money? Because they are the only ones that can, at any time during the academic year, provide the competition necessary to hold public schools accountable, particularly in rural areas. As expected, school boards would dislike having to pay for the remedial lessons; consequently, trustees, principals and teachers would try to ensure that the students spent as little time as possible on remediation - which is perfectly appropriate.
In this voucher system, parents would be expected to pay for the initial assessments of their children, conducted by external professionals, which would have two important benefits. First, it would reaffirm the parents' commitment to improving their children's educational performance. As well, it would ensure that these assessments were independent from both the schools and the agencies delivering the upgrading services. Of course, nothing would prevent provincial governments, private foundations, churches, and other citizens from assisting poor families with these costs.
Another advantage of the remedial voucher system is that by making taxpayers liable for the failure of the schools in their divisions would force them to take school board elections and budgets more seriously than they do now. Taxpayers would also become more interested in supporting parents who are demanding that public schools change their educational policies and practices to ensure that all students become literate and numerate.
This system would also encourage parents to pay more attention to their children's education because they would realize that it is fundamentally their responsibility. Parents would no longer be inclined to accept teachers' advice that they should not worry about their children's academic achievement because they are 'progressing at their own pace.' As more and more parents came to realize that school boards would pay for remediation, they would have a strong incentive to determine the validity of the claims teachers made about their children's progress.
As a consequence, over time principals and superintendents would become more careful in hiring and retaining good teachers. Likewise, these administrators would have disincentives for shuffling incompetent teachers from school to school in the so-called 'turkey trot' that exists now. Principals would also have strong incentives for ensuring that their best teachers teach the most difficult students. No longer would excellent teachers be able to bargain with principals to obtain the best classes of students, leaving the most difficult students for inexperienced teachers. In addition, both teachers and principals would have a good reason to provide remedial programs for borderline students. And, they would have an equally compelling reason for using rigorous disciplinary programs on students who intentionally disrupt the education of others.
Finally, there would be pressure on the faculties of education to ensure that all of their graduates can teach and evaluate basic literacy and numeracy at various grade levels. Faculties that did not adequately educate their student-teachers would soon hear from graduates who failed to obtain teaching positions and they would hear from principals and superintendents who inadvertently hired less-than-competent graduates.
Even if this modified voucher system is good in theory, in practice, few politicians are so convinced of the necessity of improving education that they are willing to take on the powerful interest groups--teachers' unions, principals, trustees, superintendents, and professors of education--who are determined to protect the status quo. But, if schools are to be reformed, politicians need to empower parents while disempowering the other interest groups. By enacting legislation for this modified voucher system, politicians would force the vested interest groups to become more accountable for what they do and how well they do it.