Paying For Phantoms

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

An organization with a noble mission is planning to take the Winnipeg School Division to court.

The Aboriginal Literacy Centre (ALC) wants the Division to make sure that native children show up at school. Although some inner-city schools have absentee rates as high as 40%, no efforts are made to enforce or even monitor attendance.

The issue is of particular concern in the core area of Winnipeg, where the aboriginal population is growing steadily. When the truants don’t have their noses in books, they’re up to mischief. Every child that fails to acquire a minimal level of academic skills is almost certainly destined to end up in the "welfare trap" or in jail.

Trying to get the Winnipeg School Division to remedy the problem appears to be a waste of time. This organization, the largest school board in the province, could stand as the poster child for what economists call the "provider-capture syndrome". That is, the system now exists primarily to serve those who run it.

If more proof of this is needed, consider the response of Division Chairperson Mario Santos to the problem: "We don’t have that data. My God, I don’t want us to go through all the bloody [attendance] sheets in the schools. We’ve got better things to do."

Under the current funding arrangements, administrators have no incentive to retrieve the delinquents. They submit their registration numbers to the Province once a year, at the end of September. They are paid for the number on that list, whether or not the students are actually there. Ignoring the absentees means they get the same pay for up to 40% less work.

The ALC’s answer to the problem? They would like to create a separate aboriginal school division in Winnipeg. Presumably, the new board would start out running a tight ship, but how long would this last in a system that pays big money to educate phantom students who are skipping classes?

An obvious solution would be to place performance conditions on the funding. If the Division’s annual allotment depended on year-round enrollment, its chairman would not dismiss the problem so breezily. Even better, if payment rose or fell on the basis of test results, the schools would make serious efforts at retention. Home visits by truant officers with the power to sanction delinquent parents used to work very well. Unfortunately, the officers were eliminated as part of a school board policy to unload non-union staff.

Although truancy enforcement would be a good start, it could only serve as a Band-Aid to cover the surface imperfections of the system. More permanent resolution requires structural reform, namely removal of the unaccountable middleman layer, the archaic and costly school board system. A program of school choice, either charter schools or a full-fledged voucher system, would change the incentives. In places like Alberta that have established choice mechanisms, schools seek to attract and retain students, whom they see as customers, because the straightened-out financial incentives make them do so.

A school-choice provision produces the added side-benefit of encouraging the diversity desired by minority groups like the ALC. When across-the-board standardized testing is added to the mix as a performance check, schools are forced to alter their nonchalant attitude and improve their service.

Winnipeg School Trustee Betty Granger ran for office on a "back to the basics" platform. After she was elected, she discovered that her allies on that issue were two native trustees who, more than anyone else, know aboriginal children will not escape their families’ grinding poverty without a solid education.

If we want to keep these kids in school, where they belong, we have to build a system that will do more than just serve itself.