No gain, lots of pain from cutting private school funding

March 8, 2017

Published in the Edmonton Journal

Never let a good budget crisis go to waste. That must be why various labour groups have banded together to demand the end of private school funding.

Facing a record-high deficit, Alberta’s NDP government is under considerable pressure to reduce costs without jeopardizing core services. Public Interest Alberta (PIA), a labour-supported advocacy group, thinks it has found the perfect solution. It wants the government to eliminate the $248 million it provides to private schools and reallocate this money to public schools.

By doing this, PIA argues, public boards will be able to reduce class sizes, cut school fees, increase classroom supports, and introduce school lunch programs. In a striking coincidence, each of these items happens to coincide with an NDP campaign promise.

However, there are good reasons to reject cutting private school funding. An extra $248 million to public school boards sounds like a lot — until we remember total public school funding in 2016-17 will be about $7.2 billion. Basic math tells us $248 million adds a mere 3.4 per cent to the total education budget.

PIA would have government disrupt the education of thousands of students in accredited private schools with long-standing funding arrangements with the province for the sake of increasing public school board budgets by 3.4 per cent. Anyone who thinks this is enough money to transform public education needs to remember this expenditure would barely make a dent in class sizes, let alone anything else PIA would like to see happen.

It gets worse when we realize private schools actually save the province a lot of money. While government provides partial funding for the operating costs of accredited private schools, it does not pay for capital costs. This year alone, the total capital costs for public schools amount to $1.8 billion over and above the $7.2 billion in operational costs.

If all 29,000 students currently enrolled in private schools transferred to the public system, school boards would undoubtedly need to construct new classrooms and possibly even new schools. All the capital funds would need to come straight from the province, putting even more pressure on the provincial budget.

Furthermore, per-student funding to private schools amounts to only about $5,200 per student, in contrast with the approximately $11,000 per student in public schools. Transferring all 29,000 private school students to public schools would cost the government $168 million each year since the province would now be on the hook for an extra $5,800 for each student. If PIA is worried about large class sizes now, it had better be prepared for even bigger classes should their proposal be adopted by the Alberta government.

Private school funding is an easy target for labour groups like PIA because, at first glance, it appears unfair for government to subsidize parents who send their children to private schools. After all, they argue, if parents want an elite education for their children, they should pay for it themselves.

The problem with this reasoning is it portrays the funding as a subsidy to private schools rather than as support to parents who choose a different educational option for their children. In other words, the money should simply follow the student. All Alberta families pay school taxes and are entitled to receive some benefit from the taxes they pay, especially when they enrol their children in schools that teach the Alberta curriculum and hire certified teachers.

It is both surprising and disappointing the Edmonton Public Schools board has joined PIA in its request to cut private school funding. For nearly 40 years, the board has led the way in promoting school choice. Students in Edmonton have a wide variety of options to choose from and this long-standing flexibility has been largely responsible for the relatively small number of private schools in Edmonton.

Thus, if public school boards are concerned about the proliferation of private schools, they should follow Edmonton’s example and provide more options. Providing parents with more choices is always a better approach than curtailing the choices they currently have.

There is little to be gained from chopping private school funding and much to be lost. Hopefully the Alberta government is wise enough to reject this short-sighted proposal.

Students shouldn’t have to wait for a good education

September 21, 2013

People say that “good things come to those who wait.” Maybe they do. But this saying is cold comfort to the families of more than 8000 children who are waiting to get into the most popular charter school in Calgary.

Foundations for the Future Charter Academy (FFCA) enrolls about 3000 students in its seven campuses across the city. While the school would like to accept more students, the government caps its enrolment. Meanwhile, families on the waiting list are left to wonder whether they will ever have the opportunity to get their kids into this school.

It isn’t hard to see why FFCA is popular. While regular public school administrators and school boards are largely under the sway of the latest edu-babble fads and failed progressive ideologies, FFCA encourages its teachers to use strategies that actually work.

Among other things, this means teachers take charge of their classrooms and provide lots of teacher-directed instruction. In math class, students memorize their times tables, learn the standard algorithms for basic operations, and do lots of practice questions. In reading, FFCA teachers make regular use of phonics because of its proven effectiveness. Students learn proper grammar, receive regular homework assignments, and write a lot of tests. Obviously, parents want their children to be able to calculate and read effectively.

While these traditional methodologies are very popular with most parents and some teachers, they are anathema in education faculties where teachers are trained. Education professors regularly encourage prospective teachers to be a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage.” In other words, the last thing they want is for teachers to provide a defined knowledge base and skill set to students. They downplay the importance of academic content and focus on social issues and the students’ self-esteem.

The influence of this failed ideology can be found throughout the public school system. Fuzzy math, invented spelling, no-zero policies, incomprehensible report cards, and lax discipline are only a few examples. Parents are fed up with how their neighbourhood public schools have been turned into laboratories for a never-ending succession of senseless fads. They want their children to receive a solid education, and consequently they flock to schools like FFCA.

At first glance, it seems surprising that schools like FFCA are not popping up across the country. Considering the pent-up demand for a back-to-basics education approach, there would be no shortage of students.

Unfortunately, despite all the lip service given to diversity, most public school boards are highly monolithic. With the notable exception of Edmonton Public Schools, school boards tend to control everything from teacher professional development to the textbooks used in class, leaving local school principals to simply implement board directives. Also, school boards don’t like it when students try to attend schools outside their designated catchment areas, and they throw up as many road blocks as possible. It is not surprising that public school principals usually fall in line.

If it wasn’t for the Alberta charter school legislation, passed in 1994, FFCA wouldn’t exist today. Charter schools are public schools that operate outside the jurisdiction of public school boards. Like other public schools, they are non-sectarian, open to all students, and do not charge fees. However, their autonomy makes it possible for them to offer courses and programs, such as basic math and English, which simply do not exist in public school boards. Hence, FFCA’s back-to-basics approach is serving the needs of students.

While charter schools are common in the United States, Alberta is the only province that allows them to exist. As a result, FFCA won’t be opening up sister branches in other parts of the country, no matter how much demand there is. Even in Alberta, charter schools don’t exactly have it easy. The government only allows 15 charter schools to exist at a time, and it makes each school re-apply for a charter every 5 years. The government also caps enrolment at each school so they cannot expand to take in more students.

Charter schools, like FFCA, have proven their worth to students and parents. If Alberta made it easier for new charter schools to exist and provided more support to the ones that do, fewer students would need to sit on a waiting list. As for the rest of the country, it’s time to follow Alberta’s example and allow charter schools a chance to revolutionize public education.

Charting new course for small schools

April 20, 2013

Published in The Chronicle Herald (Halifax)

The last few years have been difficult ones for public education in Nova Scotia. Declining student enrolment, poor academic results and unpopular school closures are just a few of the problems facing this province.

When it comes to school closures, trustees and parents are caught in a vicious cycle. As student numbers decline, the province reduces funding to public school boards. In order to balance their budgets, boards make unpopular decisions to close schools. Parents feel powerless as trustees ignore their impassioned pleas to keep community schools open.

However, instead of making parents fight a hopeless battle against monolithic and unresponsive school boards, the province should give them the tools they need to take meaningful action. It should follow the example of Alberta and pass charter schools legislation.

Charter schools are public schools that operate independently of school boards. They are governed by non-profit organizations and receive an annual per-student operational grant from the province. Charter schools have no religious affiliation, practise an open enrolment policy and follow the provincial curriculum. Currently, 13 charter schools operate in the province of Alberta.

Parents in rural Nova Scotia should take note of recent events in the tiny hamlet of Valhalla Centre in northwest Alberta. Several years ago, Valhalla Centre nearly lost its community school. However, instead of allowing the school board to proceed with closure, parents and other community members banded together, purchased the school building from the board, and established Valhalla Community School as an independently operated charter school.

Because the school now operates independently of the school board, the community adopted a charter that reflects local concerns and values. Valhalla Community School places a strong emphasis on rural leadership and requires its students to learn about board governance and parliamentary procedure. It also focuses on teacher-directed instruction, classical literature, drill and practice in mathematics, and accurate spelling and grammar. Interestingly, since becoming a charter school, student enrolment has steadily grown as it now attracts students from the wider geographical area.

Imagine what Nova Scotia parents could do if they had the same opportunity to establish charter schools as parents in Alberta. Charter schools legislation would make it possible for parents to keep their schools open while simultaneously refashioning them to better reflect the values of the local community.

Not only that, but charter schools can revolutionize education in urban centres as well. Consider the example of Foundations for the Future Charter Academy (FFCA) in Calgary. FFCA was established almost 20 years ago and its enrolment has steadily grown to almost 3,000 students today on seven different campuses.

Like Valhalla, FFCA places a strong emphasis on traditional academics and hard work. FFCA students wear uniforms, complete regular homework, memorize their math facts and learn to read by phonics. Its program is so popular with parents that it has more than 6,000 students on its wait list.

Many parents in Halifax would probably be very interested if a school like FFCA opened in their city. Since charter schools do not charge tuition, admission would be open to all parents, not just those who could afford high tuition fees.

Parents dissatisfied with the instruction provided in regular public schools would finally have an alternative.

However, the range of potential charter schools goes far beyond those who prefer a traditional model of education.

For example, the Boyle Street Education Centre in Calgary caters to at-risk youth in the 14 to 19 age group while Mother Earth’s Children’s Charter School in Stony Mountain focuses on aboriginal education. In addition, the Suzuki Charter School in Edmonton promotes advanced music skills at an early age using the approach of renowned musician Shinichi Suzuki.

Clearly, charter schools reflect the diversity of Canadian society.

In contrast, the one-size-fits-all model of public education in Nova Scotia does not meet the needs of a diverse population.

The natural trend towards increased central control by school board officials means school principals have limited control over their own schools and simply follow the dictates of the board.

Not only that, recent controversies around school closures have shown that school boards cannot effectively respond to the needs of parents and communities in the face of budget cuts.

Charter schools have the potential to transform public education in Nova Scotia. All the government needs to do is give them a chance.

Money should follow the student

Originally published by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy on January 12, 2012. Original Link

The recent Saskatchewan government decision to extend provincial funding to independent schools brings Saskatchewan in line with the practice in the three other western provinces. Saskatchewan independent schools are now eligible for funding equivalent to 50% of the provincial per-student average, provided they follow the provincial curriculum and hire certified teachers.

The recent Globe and Mail editorial criticizing this decision argued that funding independent schools emphasizes separateness rather than diversity. It raised the specter of John Tory’s disastrous 2007 election campaign pledge to fund independent Ontario schools and ominously warned that the general public is worried about any policies that appear to promote segregation.

However, such criticisms overlook the fact that some level of funding for independent schools is already well-established in Canada. Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Alberta provide 100% funding to their separate (Roman Catholic) school boards. These arrangements are entrenched in our Constitution. Combine this with the partial funding available to independent schools in British Columbia, Alberta, and Manitoba, and it is obvious that some provinces do not limit their education funding to public schools alone.

Opposition to provincial funding for independent schools tends to share three key points. The first is that many independent schools are faith-based and governments have no business funding religious organizations. The second focuses on the role public schools play in integrating their students into mainstream society and how independent schools promote segregation instead. Finally, opponents argue that since students from wealthy families are most likely to attend private schools, the policy amounts to a subsidy for the rich.

These arguments seem convincing because current funding arrangements for public, separate, and independent schools focus on funding school boards and/or individual schools. The funding arrangement shifts debate toward which school system is most worthy of public funding.

Adopting a model that lets the money follow the student would be a better way to handle the question. Letting the money follow the student moves us away from the tiresome debate about independent schools funding and puts the emphasis on the choices made by students and their parents.

Doing so would allow each student to attend any school of his or her choice, and a school’s provincial funding would then depend on the number of students who chose it, provided they follow the provincial curriculum and demonstrate that their students are learning it.

Any school that chooses to follow the provincial curriculum and receives the full public funding allocated for each student can be considered a public school, regardless of its philosophical or religious orientation. While it is important to hold all schools accountable for their academic results, it makes little sense to assume that a one-size-fits-all approach is suitable for our diverse population. Students should choose a school that best meets their needs, and providing flexibility at the local school level is important to ensuring this happens.

As for the concern about subsidizing private schooling for wealthy families, a policy of funding the student actually equalizes educational opportunities for families with limited means. It makes them the primary beneficiaries because it enables them to choose schooling options currently beyond their reach due to financial limitations.

In the City of Edmonton, we see a good example of how this model works. More than two decades ago, the Edmonton Public School Board embarked on a revolutionary set of changes when they made choice the foundation of their approach to education. Some of the specialty schools from which to choose in Edmonton include those focusing on Aboriginal education, sports, science, the Waldorf approach, Christian education, and performing arts.

School principals in Edmonton have direct control of most of their budget, and that budget is directly correlated with the number of students who choose to attend their schools. They also have the freedom to allow their schools to specialize in various fields. In exchange, principals are held closely accountable for student achievement as measured by factors such as graduation rates, surveys, and standardized achievement tests.

While it is good to see Edmonton take the lead on these initiatives, other jurisdictions need to implement them as well.

Every province should provide funding that will follow students to whatever accredited school they attend, whether classified as public, separate, or independent.

Letting the money follow the student is an important component of ensuring everyone gets the best education possible. While Saskatchewan’s decision does not get there, its opening on funding structure brings students in that province closer to the option for greater choice.

School boards should follow Edmonton’s lead

Originally published in The Globe and Mail, April 1, 2010. Original Link

Like many other urban school divisions, the Toronto District School Board continues to struggle with declining enrolment due to private school competition and parents who move to the suburbs. But a plan for the development of specialty schools could be just the thing needed to rejuvenate Toronto’s stagnated public school system – provided it does it right.

According to education director Chris Spence, the Toronto board plans to allow four specialized elementary schools to open in September of 2011 – a school for boys, a school for girls, a choir school and a sports academy. They will operate within the public system and have an open enrolment policy. No tuition fees will be charged.

Allowing parents more choice is a welcome change from the usual “one size fits all” model imposed on neighbourhoods by public school boards. By enabling the creation of specialty schools within the public system, the boards can meet the needs of parents who would otherwise choose to enroll their children in private schools.

What’s happening in Toronto is by no means unique. More than two decades ago, the Edmonton Public School Board launched a revolutionary set of changes when it made choice the foundation of its approach to education. Some of the specialty schools include those that focus on aboriginal education, sports, science, the Waldorf approach, Christian education, and performing arts. Parents also have the option of regular neighbourhood schools.

While many cities have seen an exodus of students from their public schools, Edmonton experienced the reverse. Because of the many choices available to parents within the public system, there is little need for private school options. In fact, some of Edmonton’s public schools are former private schools that joined the public system because of the flexibility provided by the school board.

For the success experienced by Edmonton to be replicated in other cities such as Toronto, however, there are a number of issues school boards need to keep in mind.

The first is that the boards must embrace choice as an integral part of their overall philosophy and not simply as another fad to implement on a trial basis in a few isolated pockets. While it’s positive that Toronto will allow for several specialty schools, that school board should go much further. There’s no reason to limit choice to only a few groups of parents. All parents should be able to send their children to the school that best meets the needs of their children.

Also, it’s important to allow a variety of specialty schools to emerge. As long as schools follow the basic curriculum and all other provincial guidelines, there’s no reason for boards to arbitrarily restrict specialty schools to those preferred by individual board members or administrators. Limited choice results in limited results. If the numbers warrant it, parents should be able to have a school that emphasizes the specialty of their choice.

Another key aspect of the Edmonton model is how principals are given control over their own budgets; this allows them to create the most effective environment possible. More than 90 per cent of every dollar raised by the Edmonton Public School Board is controlled at the local level by individual principals. This flexibility gives them the authority they need to manage their schools effectively.

But local school autonomy needs to be combined with accountability. Edmonton principals are held accountable for their results: Students write regular standards tests in the core academic subjects with each school’s results made available to the public. As a result, this information becomes part of what parents take into account when deciding where to enroll their children.

In short, school boards need to ensure that choice is made available to all parents, be open to a variety of specialty options, give principals greater autonomy, and hold schools accountable for their results through the use of standardized achievement tests in the core subjects.

If Toronto and other urban school boards follow Edmonton’s lead, Canadians could see a revolution take place in the quality of education provided to our children.