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.

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.