Let Schools Specialize

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

Our one-size-fits-all public school model is in trouble.

The tempest currently roiling in Winnipeg’s School Division #1 has placed its school board trustees in a spot. They are caught in a maelstrom that they could have avoided and they have blocked the only way out.

The issue that generated all the heat is one trustee’s proposal that the Division set up an Anti-homophobia program to teach tolerance of homosexuals. She has the support of the NDP majority on the board. Aligned against them and fighting mad, is a loose coalition of Christians and parents who do not want their children to receive such instruction.

The Board began a series of meetings to receive the dozens of delegations that wished to express their views. It became clear the two solitudes have little chance of reconciling their differences through existing institutions. The polarization is so complete that, no matter what the Board eventually decides, many people will be disappointed.

It was startling to observe the cavalier treatment meted out by the Board’s chairperson to a delegation that spoke to another issue, that of charter schools. After a brief internal disagreement about jurisdiction, the trustees made it clear they did not have to entertain the idea, and that it would never receive serious consideration.

This is unfortunate because school choice offers the Board a mechanism to resolve controversial matters such as diversity education. Charter schools are one method of achieving school-based management. They accommodate different curriculums and let all parents find satisfaction, no matter what their differences of opinion.

The creation of an internal market within the public school system, beyond its value in accommodating minority interests, would also create competitive forces that would compel better performance by individual schools. This would empower principals and teachers by allowing them to experiment with different practices. Parents can have their needs met whether they want child-centered learning or direct instruction; whole language instruction or phonics; calculators or traditional math drills. In fact, some parents of children with cerebral palsy are one of the groups trying for a charter.

Alberta is the only province that allows charter schools, and most of them seem to be doing quite nicely, though some have failed. Competition between schools for students has generated increases in the quality of instruction and rising test scores.

Some states are embracing charter schools and expanded public school options. New Mexico’s popular Governor is proposing a voucher plan to cover 100,000 children in the program’s first year and the rest thereafter. School choice has momentum there, 58 percent of parents support the idea. More interestingly, both Michigan and Wisconsin have demonstrated that school choice works best to advance the chances of the most disadvantaged students. In Milwaukee, the first U.S. city to implement school vouchers, all five anti-school choice candidates were given the boot in recent school board elections. Government officials in Michigan sacked Detroit’s entire failing school board in March, and gave trustees five days to clear out their offices.

The problem with the Winnipeg School Board is that the same trustees who support the Anti-homophobia program adamantly oppose real school choice. Their devotion to centralized control of the curriculum blinds them to a civilized solution – letting schools specialize. Parents who want this type of program could shop for it without offending those who do not.

The Board tried to dodge the issue by saying that the Province has to change public school legislation to allow charters. However, the Province’s top education official, John Carlyle, disagrees. He said they have the authority to do it.

The tyranny of old ideas prevents the Winnipeg School Board from seeing this.