As the NDP government of Rachel Notley marks its first anniversary in power and the Fort McMurray wildfire compounds the province’s economic troubles, the need for a viable alternative government grows more urgent. Several groups are trying to provoke or promote a merger between the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties. Others are trying to bring the two parties together under a new banner. Everyone involved in these efforts might want to think instead about uniting the right around some core policies and principles.

Most conservatives agree that an alternative to the NDP must be based on “conservative principles.” But there is less agreement on what those principles might be. Balanced budgets? Low taxes? Interprovincial free trade? Toll roads? Climate policy? Conservatives differ on the importance of these propositions. But that’s not an insurmountable roadblock to right-wing unity, because economic policies are not the essence of conservatism.

Surely, the first principle – the litmus test if you will – for a conservative party at the provincial level is a commitment to parental choice in education. A conservative knows that the primary responsibility for the education of children must lie with parents. The first task of a provincial government, then, is to support that parental role. It should provide parents with freedom – in other words, choices – in the education of their children. Who, in the end, has the best interests of children at heart? Parents, or the mass of conflicting interests and ideologies in the educational system? The conservative answer to that question is clear.

Parental choice in education is the last remaining vestige of the conservative revolution authored by the Progressive Conservative government under Ralph Klein in the 1990s. The imperative of balancing the provincial budget was tossed out by Klein’s PC successors.  So was the focus on the performance and cost of government services, and the preference for decentralization in health care. They even proposed to ditch the flat income tax and low corporate tax structure, promises the NDP implemented after it toppled the Tories last fall. The only Klein innovation that remains is the plethora of educational choices offered to parents. Charter schools, private schools, home schooling, traditional learning within the public system, immersion programs within the public system – when the Brodie family returned to Alberta three years ago the educational choices we had for our two children were almost overwhelming.

The Notley government is chipping away at this last pillar of the Klein legacy.  In February, the NDP denied permits for two new charter schools in Calgary, one serving students with disabilities and one with a focus on Spanish and science. Under pressure from the left to axe funding for private schools, the education minister has not ruled out doing so eventually. Meanwhile, his government is running roughshod over parental opposition to gay-straight alliances and bathroom accommodations for gender-dysphoric adolescents.

Parental choice in education is important to conservatives because conservatives believe the family is the elementary unit of civil society. Where families have the right and responsibility to raise their children in accord with their own diverse values, societies thrive. Where the state denies those rights and responsibilities and imposes its homogenous values, societies wither.

The most powerful threat to the primacy of the family is the public school. Of course public schools provide “free” education, which offers the hope of personal improvement, future opportunity and good citizenship.  What parent wants to raise an uneducated child?  But public schools are part of the state, and are therefore prone to the congenital pathologies of bureaucracies. The mission can be corrupted. They can lose their focus on results. The system can divert resources to serve the interests of its workers and managers. The state can subvert public schooling to serve its own propaganda aims.  And, at the worst end of the spectrum, the system can hold students hostage to endless forms of social experimentation. On these last two fronts, consider Calgary oil workers who see their children being taught to hate the oil industry. Or the progressive effort to build a “gender-neutral society” in the public schools.

Free market conservatives embrace parent choice in education in the belief that competition is healthy in any system. When public schools have to compete against private schools, charter schools and home-schooling, they improve. In this way, parental choice helps not just the parents who avail themselves of schooling alternatives but also the parents who keep their children in the public system. Choice, the economists tell us, has “positive externalities”, including holding down costs due to competition in a free market.

Religious and social conservatives embrace parental choice for complementary reasons. It allows parents to opt out of any school that promotes values which conflict with their own, and to opt in to schools with more compatible religious or cultural precepts. Far from exacerbating cultural divisions, as public school monopolists contend, independent faith-based schools can vitalize and enrich religious institutions that are themselves critical parts of a healthy and diverse civil society.

The architects of a new, united conservative movement in Alberta – or anywhere – should recognize that parental choice in education is the gateway to many other constituencies. The potentially conservative families of the suburbs, the inner cities and the rural areas of Alberta also enjoy the benefits of choice. High-income, middle-income and lower-income families alike benefit from having options. Calgary has a mix of schools focused on the arts, on music, and on students who count as “gifted” by many different standards.  Some Calgary schools emphasize math and science. Others appeal to globalist parents by offering the International Baccalaureate program. The possible choices are endless. A true conservative government would encourage “green” parents to establish a school focused on sustainability and ecological preservation.

Any new conservative party in Alberta, and any older conservative party in the other provinces, should have an unwavering support for parental choice in education. It guarantees local control, builds civil society, and limits the influence of social experimenters, teacher’s unions, and statists of all types. Parental choice forms alliances with community groups, religious institutions, and parents everywhere.  Parents who are not terribly concerned about fiscal policy or economic issues will politically mobilize to get the best for their kids.

A new Alberta conservative party, competing with the command-and-control NDP on education policy, would promise to start approving charter schools again. It would vow to free charter schools, private schools and even public schools from the undue influence of central bureaucracies and social experimenters. It might even propose some version of “Teach for America”.  This U.S. program allows top university graduates to devote a year or two to teaching in disadvantaged or remote communities. It gives these committed young people a quick introduction to the fundamentals of teaching, but does not require the onerous certification that deters many good people from pursuing the profession. A Canadian version of Teach for America could challenge the monopolies of the faculties of education and teachers’ unions, while furthering parental choice in education.

Parents who are free to make choices about educating their children are more responsible, engaged, citizens. When they get a taste of choice in education, they may demand similar choices in other fields currently monopolized by governments. Choice in education secures diversity in education, which helps secure the pluralism of future generations of citizens. Choice in primary and secondary education helps citizens understand the importance of protecting non-conforming universities like Trinity Western from the homogenizing predations of the state. And the act of establishing and running independent or charter schools and home-schooling groups feeds the vibrant civil society and entrepreneurship that conservatives know is essential to a successful society.

In the near term, Alberta conservatives should lay down some markers on parental choice, in anticipation of the NDP taking more steps to limit or even roll back charter schools, private schools and home-schooling.  If – or more likely when – the NDP moves to defund private schools or shutter charter schools, Alberta conservatives should immediately promise to reverse those moves after 2019 and move quickly to mobilize parents. Once Alberta’s next conservative government reinforces the province’s commitment to our first principle, we can get on with the job of restoring balanced budgets, low taxes and prudent economic policy.

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Ian Brodie is a former Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He is now teaches in the Law & Society program at the University of Calgary School. The views expressed here are his alone and do not necessarily represent those of his employers, past or present.