Are National Standards Necessary?
There is a tension between federalism and the welfare state. Federalism, which preserves diversity by allowing provinces to pursue alternative policies, may compromise the achievement of the shared social citizenship fostered in a federation when the welfare state offers comparable programs and benefits accessible to all citizens.
The fear is that diversity will overpower social citizenship and compromise both the overall performance of policy sectors and the achievement of sub-national comparability within a federal country. To reconcile this tension, federations are often encouraged to adopt national standards and to impose them on the provincial governments to ensure that all citizens enjoy equal access to comparable programs and benefits.
This line of reasoning has commanded much traction in Canada. It underpinned the ratification of the Canada Health Act and informed other components of Canada’s social contract.
But this begs a simple question. Are national standards necessary for good quality, comparable social programs? Or can equal and comparable programs emerge without national oversight? To answer this question, let’s take a closer look at the elementary and secondary education system in Canada.
Canada’s Education System and National Standards
In contrast to virtually every other advanced industrial country, minimum funding levels, national educational goals or an overarching curriculum do not exist in Canada. The federal government does not maintain a national department of education; provinces exercise complete control and autonomy over the field and are free to pursue whatever education policies they so desire, tailored to local needs and interests. The provinces themselves are socially, economically, demographically and politically quite diverse. Given these conditions, sub-national diversity and (potentially) inequality should be the norm in Canadian education.
However, without a national department of education or any sort of overarching standards, the Canadian provinces have defied the odds and established a highly successful and comparable system of education from coast to coast. Across the country, the provinces invest in mandatory education at comparable levels and achieve comparable results for their students.
From Newfoundland to British Columbia, graduation rates are similar, as are the results on pan-Canadian and international tests, such as the Programme for International Student Achievement, operated by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
This is not to say that all provinces are perfectly equal; students in Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec, for example, tend to gain the highest scores on international tests while students in New Brunswick tend to lag behind. However, if we compare this to results in other countries, the differences between Canadian provinces are significantly smaller than the discrepancies between sub-national jurisdictions in other federations.
The answer to our first question is a resounding “no:” national standards are not necessary for quality and comparable social programs in a federation to emerge. This leads to a second question: How did the provinces defy the odds? The answer is three-fold.
Why have national standards not been necessary?
First, regardless of where they live, all Canadians want high quality education programs for their children. Citizens therefore place enormous pressure on provincial decision-makers to craft good programs that compare favourably to the ones in other provinces. Teachers, who communicate with their counterparts across the country, also demand comparable salaries and benefits from the provincial departments of education. Put together, these social pressures encourage the provinces to work together and learn from each others’ activities and initiatives.
Second, while the federal government is not directly involved in mandatory education, Ottawa plays a vital role indirectly through equalization. Because fiscal resources are never equally distributed within a federation, the national government can act as an agent of economic redistribution to ensure that provinces have comparable fiscal capacities to act in areas of their jurisdiction. Ottawa’s system of equalization accomplishes this task such that the provinces can invest in programs and policy areas – including education – at comparable levels.
Finally, while authority over education is decentralized, this has not prevented provincial officials from coming together at the intergovernmental level. Orchestrated through the Council for Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC), provincial ministers and deputy ministers meet frequently to exchange ideas and engage in collaborative initiatives. And, because Ottawa does not participate, they can interact without fear of unilateral incursions by the federal government or pressure from the federal government to support programs that they do not want or sacrifice their autonomy in the policy field.
Put together, these three contextual factors – societal pressures, equalization and intergovernmental relations – have allowed the provinces to defy the odds and fashion a national system of education without national standards.
This piece was adapted from a forthcoming article in Publius: The Journal of Federalism titled “Beyond National Standards: Reconciling Tension between Federalism and the Welfare State.”
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