What Betsy DeVos could learn about school choice from Ontario

Unfortunately, the U.S. Education Secretary would have to visit the past to find truly innovative approaches to school choice

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What Betsy DeVos could learn about school choice from Ontario

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Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s Education Secretary, is charged with promoting school choice. She was about to visit Ontario recently but her visit was cancelled. One cannot but wonder if DeVos’ advisors learned of how Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal party clawed its way to power by smothering a truly innovative school choice program in its cradle.

The story begins with then Progressive Conservative finance minister Jim Flaherty introducing the Education Equity Tax Credit (EETC) in Ontario’s 2001 Budget. It ended with the retroactive repeal of the EETC in 2003 after Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government won a contentious election campaign dominated by unrelenting Liberal and teacher union attacks.

Or did it? Although not appreciated at the time, the EETC broke new ground in Canada and the U.S., so much so that it, or a similar program such as that advocated by Andrew Scheer, might yet make a comeback.

The EETC supported school choice by providing refundable tax credits to low- and middle-income taxpayers. In its first year, the EETC was worth a maximum of $700 per eligible child. If it had been fully implemented the maximum allowable tax credit would have risen to $3,500 in 2006 and subsequent years.

Opponents, including the current Premier, attacked the EETC as an unjustified assault on public schools. Earl Manners, then head of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Association, called it “the death knell for public education.” Despite this and other exaggerations and half-truths, Flaherty steadfastly proclaimed his party’s continuing support for public education, pointing out his budget included an additional $360 million for the public system, the total cost of which was then running at $13.8 billion.

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There were 121,447 students enrolled in Ontario independent schools in 2002, not all of whom would have been eligible for the EETC. Still, if all those had generated a full tax credit the total cost to the province would have been $85 million and change, plus administrative costs. A veritable drop in the big bucket of public school costs. This amount would have increased if the EETC had been fully phased-in, but the amount of government support to public schools would also have increased, and continued to do so beyond the 2006 cap on the EETC. This year Ontario is spending well over $25 billion.

Even if the EETC had prompted a substantial migration from public to independent schools, the loss of even a few hundred thousand students would not be a serious threat to a public system. But the EETC would have made all the difference to lower- and middle-income families choosing independent schools.

Today, as in 2001, five other provincial governments provide financial support for school choice in Canada. Then, as now, that support took the form of operating grants to independent schools, rather than the EETC’s support to families. In the U.S., only four states had individual tax credit programs in 2001, all of which provided far less financial support than the EETC. The most comparable program currently in place was enacted by Wisconsin as recently as 2014. The late Jim Flaherty’s EETC was a truly innovative, cutting edge initiative that would have catapulted Ontario to the forefront of school choice reform in North America if ithad not met an untimely end.

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We’re told Ontario looks forward to welcoming DeVos at a more convenient time. Unfortunately, DeVos will have to visit Ontario’s past, rather than its present, to find innovative approaches to school choice.

Derek Allison is Professor Emeritus, Western University. He writes on education and other social issues.

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