Are School Boards Obsolete?

Publication, Education, Dennis Owens


Locally elected school boards have occupied centre stage in the provision of education in Canada from the inception of public schools. They offered positive advantages for society, benefits like local control and involvement in a service that everyone agrees is a crucial determinant of personal fulfillment and economic success. The key players in the system—the trustees and administrators, the principals and the teachers—all had to keep their ears to the ground, the former to an electorate who pays for schools and the latter to the students and parents who use them. School boards offered all of them a public policy device within which these tensions could be successfully balanced.

For a very long time, success did characterize the maintenance of this balance. Certainly for students who did kindergarten through Grade XII, at the beginning of the baby boom, the public school system performed very well, providing high quality education at less than a third of today’s cost. Modestly paid teachers stressed continuous excellence and improvement. But there is strong evidence to suggest that both of these indicators are much less positive than they were just a generation ago. Although most students in Manitoba still are able to acquire a basic grounding in mental skills, early returns from the resumption of standardized testing show serious slippage in achievement levels, a phenomenon that has been extensively documented across Canada. Student performance as measured by the Canadian Test of Basic Skills in Canada indicates that student performance has slipped by at least one grade level over the last 25 years.1 Further, the tripling of costs has strained the ability of the public purse to maintain the public school system without very unpleasant economic consequences.

So the question then becomes: should we keep those venerable institutions, public school boards, or give them a medal for meritorious past service and pension them out of the trenches?

In the recent past, in order to balance their budgets, most provinces in Canada have significantly cut back the rate of increase in spending on education. Manitoba has been no exception to this rule. While the provincial government funded approximately 80% of the total cost of public schools in the 1980s, that number has fallen to about 60%. Most of the remainder is made up through property taxes collected under the mandate of school boards.2 To maintain funding at a constant level, or to increase it, school boards have been forced either to raise property taxes or cut programs and staff. Neither approach has been particularly popular with the general public.

At the same time, pressure for higher standards has forced the province to allow parents and students more choice in facilities. Until 1997, Manitoba required students to attend a school in the division in which they resided even if neighbouring divisions had schools closer to them. Exceptions were made only if both school divisions agreed to the exchange. School divisions were reluctant to lose students since this would reduce their overall funding, so in many cases division boundaries proved to be quite inflexible. In 1997, the provincial government instituted a “Schools of Choice” program that permits parents to send their children to any public school it funds.3 This policy change was a preliminary step in the right direction, and it already presents low-performing schools with the uncomfortable choice of rethinking their product or losing their student populations. In due course, this paper will suggest other constructive steps to extend choice and diversity in the system, to improve the incentives for better performance.

Administrative costs paid out by most Manitoba school divisions represent a significant proportion of their expenditures. Obviously, money spent on bureaucracy and administration is money that is not being spent on actual classroom education. It is also germane to consider a broader question: Should the current structure of financing schools be retained at all? In Manitoba, schools have two basic sources of funding. School boards set mill rates for property owners in their divisions and the taxes based on those rates are collected as part of the municipal property taxes collected from individual ratepayers. In addition, the Province of Manitoba assists by allocating funds from its budget directly to school boards. To replace this complex set of transactions, we will suggest a simpler formula whereby the Province funds the users of school services directly and allows them to spend the resources at a school of their choice. This option would not only allow parents and students to expand their range of choices, a value in itself, but would also act as a significant new performance check on schools as they fine-tune their course offerings and pedagogical skills to attract and retain a wider student base.

Under this model, the function of school boards as an intermediary between the local delivery of education services and the provincial authorities who retain control of curriculum and policy issues becomes problematic. The question arises, why do we need them at all? We will look at school-based management and parent-teacher councils as alternate methods that have the potential to be much more effective tools than school boards in the assertion of local control and establishing accountability for the use of resources.

History of Manitoba School Divisions

When the province of Manitoba was created in 1870, the Board of Education was divided into Protestant and Catholic sections, each funded equally by the government. At that time, there were a total of 24 school districts. Faced with a significant increase in the number of English-speaking Protestants moving into the province, the provincial government abolished the denominational system in 1890. As Manitoba’s population continued to grow, the number of school districts grew as well. By 1945, 1,875 school districts were operating in Manitoba. While successive governments encouraged consolidation into larger districts, local resistance to changes meant the status quo prevailed.

In 1957, the Manitoba government established a Royal Commission on Education which came to be known as the McFarlane Commission. In 1959, the commission recommended the creation of 46 school divisions. Boundaries for school divisions were based on a variety of factors, among them the grouping together of ethnic and linguistic minority groups. By 1966 the recommended school divisions had been created. Remote school districts in small northern communities like Churchill and Lynn Lake were not part of the consolidation process. The province ended up with a total of 48 school divisions, 6 remote school districts, and 3 special revenue school districts.4

In November, 1994, the Manitoba School Divisions/Districts Boundaries Review Commission, which had been established by the Province in July of 1993, released its final report. The Commission recommended reducing the total number of school divisions from 57 to 21. This would have had substantially increased the size of school divisions and the number of students within them. In June, 1996, the Manitoba government announced that it had decided not to implement the Commission’s recommendations to consolidate school divisions forcibly.5 It appeared unlikely that this amalgamation would save much money on administration. As the Commission itself pointed out, one of the major results of this amalgamation would be an equalization of school property tax rates across the province. Thus, residents in divisions that currently have low property tax rates (such as Hanover and Garden Valley) would see property tax increases while residents in divisions with high property tax rates (such as Winnipeg #1) would probably experience property tax decreases. Rather than significantly reducing overall costs, the net effect of the Commission’s recommendations might be to penalize residents of school divisions that keep their expenditures as low as possible. Since each division now signs separate collective bargaining agreements with the unions who represent teachers, support and administrative personnel, some divisions have balked at the potential prospect of importing higher overheads through divisional mergers.

Instead, the Province has encouraged a policy of voluntary amalgamations and of ad hoc alliances between school divisions where joint strategies could be seen to be mutually advantageous. In the spring of 1998, two urban divisions, Norwood and St. Boniface, finalized their plans to amalgamate,6 and, according to the Minister of Education’s office, discussions are in progress between some of the smaller, rural divisions which could result in further amalgamations. As many as eight possible mergers have been discussed. To encourage them, the Province has promised pay each school division that chooses to amalgamate an additional $50 per student in operating grants.7 For the most part, instead of consolidating, many divisions are now co-operating with each other, on a case-by-case basis, to achieve economies through activities like joint materials purchasing. The Province also issued a set of guidelines to assist divisions in planning co-operative ventures and amalgamations. These guidelines address issues like asset transfers, contractual obligations and labour contracts.8

In tandem with these changes, as mentioned, the Province has adopted a limited policy of school choice. Parents are now allowed to seek placements for their children in schools beyond the boundaries of the divisions in which they reside, subject to limited conditions. In turn, divisions are rescinding their non-resident fee structures.9

Accountability and Goals

Another factor that has belayed implementation of the Norrie Commission’s recommendations is the fear of losing local control of schools. In fact, there is considerable evidence that amalgamating school boards makes schools less accountable to parents, not more accountable.

Extensive studies in the United States have found that students in smaller jurisdictions usually outperform students in larger jurisdictions on standardized achievement tests.10 Moreover, recent research indicates that “Student achievement is closely and positively related to the percentage of funding derived from local sources.”11 “As the source of a school’s funding shifts farther away from those who benefit from the school, the school’s cost-effectiveness will fall.”12 In fact, “As responsibility for school funding has shifted from local governments to state . . . government, government school productivity has fallen approximately 2.5 to 3 percent a year”13

University of Manitoba Professor Benjamin Levin has argued that creating larger school boards would make it even more difficult for parents to have any influence on the education their children receive.14 When Levin was testifying before the School Boundaries Research Commission, he opposed the idea of amalgamation and summarized the available research on the topic: “It doesn’t save money and it won’t improve education. And if that’s the case, why bother?”15 The maxim "bigger is better" probably does not apply to school divisions.

Education consultant Andrew Nikiforuk confirms this observation: “No economies of scale have been connected with the size of school boards or of divisions they supervise. The most accountable and fiscally prudent boards actually tend to be responsible for smaller institutions with fewer than 20,000 students—an argument for more boards, not fewer. Good boards also focus on teaching and learning, actively monitor student progress and regularly solicit parental participation.”16

In his most recent book on school finance, Stephen Lawton observes: “Recent studies have come to question the wisdom of this century’s waves of consolidations that were based on an assumed link between program breadth and academic effectiveness. [Those] who sought to understand what ingredients contribute to academic achievement, as measured by . . . test scores, have made some surprising findings.”17 Lawton summarizes this research, which found that “relatively small school boards with an average level of wealth are most effective . . ..”18 Lawton concludes: “[I]t may be appropriate to unite school boards with fewer than 1,500 students to form larger boards, but it would be hard to justify the merger of school boards that have over 3,000 students in order to create larger units. To do so would almost certainly reduce their effectiveness as measured by student achievement and increase their per-pupil costs.”19

An American educator and critic of centralized educational structures put it most colourfully: “Most school boards are like mushrooms. They’re kept in the dark and fed manure all the time and so they rarely focus on the business of teaching and learning.”20

Even if a policy of centralizing and consolidating school divisions has the potential to achieve administrative cost savings, it may miss the point. The goal of the educational system is presumably to deliver learning services competently and efficiently. If a trade-off is made in which competency is sacrificed in order to obtain economies, the result may not be worth the effort.

Ever-Increasing Costs

Yet leaving the present system in place may not be possible. As mentioned earlier, school boards in Manitoba have failed to contain sharply rising costs. The dimensions of the problem become clear when the statistics are compared over time:

Manitoba Public School Expenditures 1960-199421

Year Students Teachers Student/Teacher Ratio All Expenditures Cost Per Student Real Cost (excluding inflation)
1960 205,584 8,101 25.4 $ 63,859,000 $310.62 $310.62
1970 261,144 11,934 21.9 194,706,000 745.59 534.63
1980 220,690 12,150 18.2 595,599,000 2,698.80 921.18
1985 219,125 12,210 17.9 953,907,000 4,353.25 1,068.11
1990 218,200 12,640 17.3 1,331,444,000 6,101.94 1,204.76
1994 221,747 12,715 17.4 1,467,811,000 6,619.30 1,176.34

Source: Advanced Statistics of Education, Statistics Canada 81-229

When you strip out the effects of inflation, you see that real spending per student increased almost four-fold over 35 years. Had public funding per student increased by only the inflation rate, Manitoba would have spent $1.2 billion less on public education in 1994 than it actually did. The reduction in real spending per student between 1990 and 1994 amounted to a pittance compared to the increases of the previous 30 years, less than 2½%. Subsequent decreases in spending over the last five years have been of a similar order.

The problem of constantly rising costs, in a climate where provincial governments of all stripes have balanced their budgets by holding the line on education spending, has made our school boards the agents of a real economic calamity—a crushing increase in the level of property taxes. The effects of these are most pronounced in the City of Winnipeg, where they have depressed property values and fuelled urban sprawl in the Capital Region. Real estate prices in the core area of Winnipeg are now down to half their peak levels; abandoned buildings and urban blight have provided the postscript.

In 1999/00, Manitobans will spend a total of $1.139 billion on public education or approximately $6,500 for each pupil in school.22 Of those funds, 56.7% will go toward regular instruction, 13.2% to special needs students, 2.4% to vocational education, 0.6% to community education, 3.6% to administration, 5.3% to instructional and pupil support services, 4.0% to transportation of pupils, 11.7% to operations and maintenance, and 2.5% to fiscal expenses such as debt servicing and interfund transfers.

As noted previously, the two major sources of funding for school divisions are the provincial government and municipal property taxes. In 1999/00, 60.6% of funding (about $730 million) will come from the provincial government while 34.7% (about $418 million) will be funded by municipal property taxes. The remaining 4.7% ($57 million) will come from other sources such as the federal government, Indian bands, and private organizations and individuals.

How Much Money is Really Spent in the Classroom?

Manitoba’s FRAME (Financial Reporting and Accounting in Manitoba Education) report provides detailed cost information about the province’s public education system. There has been some debate about the accuracy of the FRAME report’s description of administrative costs, and what spending is appropriately assigned to that category. It is frankly impossible for school divisions and trustees to understand overheads and to find methods for reducing them without transparency or useful visibility of costs. Authorities responsible for spending such large amounts of public money might be reluctant to spark debate over this issue and may therefore lowball estimates of administration costs. But much of the spending reported, for example, under the category of regular instruction includes programs and personnel that are never involved in frontline classroom activity.

Lawrence O. Picus, an American authority on school finance and President of the American Education Finance Association, has found that public schools in the United States, no matter where they are located or the amount of their resources, spend about 60% of their budgets on classroom instruction. “The strongest single finding of my recent research,” Picus reports, “is how consistently resources are allocated in the same patterns, regardless of how much money the district has. That is, all districts spend about 60% on instruction, which covers teachers’ compensation, salary and benefits, and instructional materials in the classroom.”23

One item absolutely essential to classroom education but missing from that 60% figure is the actual cost of the classroom and the furnishings and equipment it contains. In the FRAME statistics, such spending is reported under the categories of operations and maintenance in regular budgets and under capital expenditures in capital fund budgets. For the purpose of clarity, it might be a useful exercise for school finance statisticians to put these different budget lines together and arrive at a figure for the actual unit cost of classroom instruction.

In the absence of clear budget reporting, determinations about how many resources actually flow to classrooms and how many are extraneous to the goal of educating children can be arrived by reference to statistics that report national allocations. According to StatsCan data on school board expenditures by function, across the country about 81.8% of spending on education is absorbed in classroom and support services. Almost 20 cents of each dollar spent, therefore, is dedicated to non-classroom activity, at least as officially reported .24 Picus’ findings would indicate that the true figure is twice that.

Comparing School Divisions

When the spending of school divisions is compared across Manitoba, startling discrepancies emerge that raise questions of equity in the public school system. Because of the relatively large amount of autonomy that each school division possesses, there is substantial variation in expenditures on everything from regular instruction to administration. Divisions also vary widely in the amount of property tax they choose to collect. (For the purpose of this comparison, remote divisions and districts have not been included; special circumstances and geography would make their inclusion meaningless.)

Sample Spending Comparisons between Manitoba School Divisions in 1999/0025

School Division Total Spending Per Pupil Regular Instruction Administration Transportation Operations and Maintenance
Winnipeg#1 $7,282 $4,254 $772 $1,342 $ 999
Fort Garry 6,625 4,218 735 528 616
River East 5,850 3,635 585 510 615
Garden Valley 5,278 3,455 476 504 384
Brandon 5,483 3,445 438 523 558
Hanover 4,984 3,254 469 420 535

Source: FRAME Report, 1999/2000 Budget, Manitoba Education and Training

In the 1999/00 school year, school divisions will spend an average of $6,491 per pupil. But Hanover budgeted only $4,984 per student, Garden Valley $5,278 per student, and Brandon $6,292 per student. In contrast, Winnipeg #1 needed $7,282 per student. In other words, for each pupil Hanover required just over two-thirds of the money budgeted by Winnipeg #1, while Garden Valley and Brandon will spend less than 73% of that amount.

Most school divisions will spend only 60% of their budgets on regular instruction. In order to find out why these wide variations in per pupil spending exist, it might be useful to compare what different school divisions spend per pupil on things like administration, transportation and operations and maintenance.

In the 1999/00 fiscal year, a total of $118,892,983 was budgeted for administration costs in all the school divisions in the province. This category, as officially reported, includes the cost of Boards of Trustees salaries, instructional management and administration, business and administration services, data processing and professional and staff management. The first three categories of administration expenses take up considerably more money than the last two. Most costs reported for administration are for the salaries of administrators.

The proportion of school divisions’ budgets officially reported as spent on administration ranges from a low of approximately 6.2% in the Morris-MacDonald School Division ($373 per pupil) to a high of 9.7% in Winnipeg #1 School Division ($772 per pupil).

Three school divisions which will spend only about $5,000 per pupil, Hanover, Brandon and Garden Valley, also have very low administrative costs. In contrast, divisions with high administrative costs also show high per pupil expenditures.

In 1999/00, all school divisions will spend approximately $47.9 million on transportation costs. One might expect that the number of kilometers that school buses travel each year would be the determining factor in the differences in transportation costs from division to division. However, such is not the case. Winnipeg #1 will transport 1,666 pupils a total of 869,022 km in 1999/00. A total of $2,235,000 will be spent and the cost works out to $1,342 per pupil being transported and $3.81 per kilometer. Hanover will transport 3,540 pupils a total of 1,088,000 km in the same year. And yet only $1,487,545 will be spent, which works out to $420 per pupil being transported and $2.09 per kilometer, almost half of the cost in Winnipeg #1.

It should be noted that the large difference in expenditures on transportation between Hanover and Winnipeg #1 is not the result of geographic distance, number of pupils being transported, total kilometers traveled, or size of budget. The above figures are the amount spent per pupil being transported. Since Hanover is a rural division, and Winnipeg #1 a comparatively compact urban one, you might have expected the opposite result.

Another area in which there is significant variation in division expenditures is operations and maintenance. On average, school divisions in Manitoba will spend $765 per pupil on operations and maintenance in the 1999/00 school year. Next to remote northern districts, which again are special cases, the school division with the highest operations and maintenance expenditures will be Winnipeg #1 at $999 per pupil. The school divisions with the lowest operations and maintenance expenditures are Garden Valley at $504 per pupil and Hanover at $535 per pupil.

The contrast is also extreme in Divisions inside the City in spending on operations and maintenance. Why is the expenditure rate on operations and maintenance so much higher in Winnipeg #1 than in other Winnipeg divisions like Transcona-Springfield, which will spend $578 per pupil and River East, which will spend $615? These discrepancies raise serious questions about the ability of school boards to control costs.

School Division Total Spending Per Pupil % Revenue From Province % Revenue From Property Taxes
Hanover $4,984 78.2 19.4
Garden Valley 5,278 72.1 27.3
Brandon 5,483 64.3 28.1
River East 5,850 66.0 32.8
Fort Garry 6,625 46.8 50.2
Winnipeg#1 $7,282 54.2 43.6

Source: FRAME Report, 1999/2000 Budget, Manitoba Education and Training

In the 1999/00 school year, school divisions on average will receive 60.6% of their revenues from the provincial government and 34.7% of their revenues through municipal property taxes. It has often been argued, particularly by the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, that the provincial government has been neglecting education funding because it has allowed its share of education funding to decline from a high of 80% of total costs in the 1980’s to about 60% at present. However, this argument is flawed because it ignores the fact that the performance of some school divisions is largely responsible for the difference.

Those school divisions with high expenditures and unnecessary extra costs also have the highest proportion of their funding paid for by school-levied property taxes. The largest and most expensive division, Winnipeg #1, which has a budget of $224 million, collects very high municipal property taxes. The breakdown is 54.2% from the provincial government and 43.6% from property taxes. In contrast, Hanover School Division will receive 78.2% of its revenues from the provincial government and only 19.4% from municipal property taxes. In fact, 20 of the 48 regular school divisions will receive about two-thirds of their funding directly from the provincial government.

The amount of money that each school division receives from the provincial government is contingent upon the number of students enrolled in any given year. Because some school divisions spent far more money per pupil than other divisions, they simply hike their property taxes in order to meet their costs. There is an obvious correlation between divisions that have comparatively low per pupil expenditure rates, low transportation costs, low administration costs and low operation and maintenance costs and those that have lower municipal property taxes. Frugal divisions such as Hanover and Garden Valley are able to keep property taxes low while divisions such as Winnipeg #1 and Fort Garry, which have large bureaucracies and high all-around costs, also have very high property taxes.

One conclusion that can be drawn from this look at the data is that the current school division structure is not working equitably. Because school divisions set widely different property tax rates, parents who live in some divisions have to pay considerably more for their children’s’ education than parents who live in other divisions.

The Labour Factor

School division bureaucracies have become increasingly large and unwieldy, especially in the largest, urban divisions. Here’s a breakdown of full-time employee groups in Winnipeg #1 Division for 1998, culled from their budget:27

Categories Employees
Teachers 1,970
Support Services 695
Teaching Assistants 675
Clerical 265
Administration 165
Total 3770

Source: 1998/99 Budget Estimates, Winnipeg School Division #1

The Division has separately reported this total as 3,695 full-time employees; the discrepancy might be attributed to unfilled positions, or simply foggy reporting. Due to job sharing, the number of individuals reported as performing the work totals 4,304.28 The percentage of hands-on classroom workers on the Division’s staff comes to about two-thirds, versus a third that never see a class. It should be made clear, though, that what the Division reports as “teachers” may be interpreted very liberally. Many people listed as instruction staff never see a student, but work as consultants on curriculum and other matters. Allowing for that fact would bring the ratio very close to the one identified earlier by Professor Picus, that is, a division of 60-40 in most school boards in North America between classroom and non-classroom resources.

It should also be noted that 1617 of the above employees earn more than $50,000 a year, the mark at which all public sector salaries must be identified by law. A quick scan through the collective bargaining agreements also reveals a large wage gap between Winnipeg #1 employees and comparable workers in the private sector:

  • School caretakers start at $13.23 an hour.
  • Warehouse workers make $14.24 an hour.
  • The lowest scale for painters is $19.80 an hour.
  • Secretaries start at $13.44 an hour and file clerks at $12.87.

This information is not intended to be critical of these individuals, but simply to make the point that the school board has been unable to achieve fair market rates for these or most other job classifications.

This gap is clearly identifiable at lower levels of pay, but it works in more subtle ways where professional staff is concerned. A combination of very effective bargaining by the Manitoba Teachers Society and other associated unions and the syndrome of “credential inflation” has priced most Division employees at the top of the salary scale. Although no such credentials are required to perform their functions, many elementary school teachers have been able to reach their highest possible wage level by earning Master’s degrees and more. As one trustee put it, “Do we really need Grade II teachers who make $85,000 a year?”

Salary costs in this school year will absorb nearly 80% of this year’s $210 million budget in Winnipeg #1. Why have this school division and others generally proven to be soft touches at the negotiating table? The problem is identified in economic jargon as the dichotomy between concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. Teachers are highly organized, articulate and knowledgeable about the system they work within. They have a strong interest in maintaining the wage and benefit gains they have achieved over the last generation. School board trustees, on the other hand, can spread the cost of filling these provider demands over the whole population, none of who feels damaged enough to mount any effective resistance. Incumbent trustees are almost always returned to office, and face little penalty for taking the path of least resistance.

A second economic concept called provider capture is helpful in understanding why this process has become so dysfunctional. Observed quite consistently, especially throughout the public sector, this phenomenon turns organizations into self-serving creatures, where the main beneficiaries of the services offered turn out to be the service providers rather than the people who need them. The buffer that school boards once provided between the interests of providers and consumers of education services has been reduced in its effectiveness because education activists tend to dominate them. “As the primary governing body of the district’s schools, it is the school board that will most often challenge the unions. Often, the administrators and school board associations will be at odds with the unions. As a result, the unions put a lot of effort and money into electing their people onto school boards. Teachers unions take advantage of typical low turnouts for school board elections as ‘a better way to achieve their goals than striking.’ They get sympathizers onto the local governing bodies and try to control both the management and labor sides of the bargaining table.”29

Amalgamating school divisions, such as the Manitoba School Divisions Boundaries Review Commission recommends, will simply compound this problem by creating more powerful bargaining units. Instead, one has to consider whether it is possible to provide a good basic education without the expensive overheads and gridlock the current school division model offers.

School Divisions in Other Provinces

Whether the policy of school board consolidations offers real advantages or merely chimerical ones, provinces in Canada have embraced it with enthusiasm, as the following chart indicates:

Number of Boards/ Students Per Board30

Province Previous Now Previous Now Status of changes
Newfoundland 27 10 4,523 10,732 Implemented in 1997
Prince Edward Island 5 3 4,919 8,192 Implemented in 1994
Nova Scotia 22 7 7,716 24,096 Implemented in 1996
New Brunswick* 42 0 7,839 (No boards) Boards eliminated in 1996
Quebec 156 70 7,291 16,249 Implemented in 1998
Ontario 129 72 13,025 34,074 Implemented in 1998
Manitoba 57 56 3,957 3,978 Changes proposed, rejected
Saskatchewan 119 107 1,785 1,797 Announced in 1997
Alberta 181 57 2,938 9,702 Implemented in 1994
British Columbia 75 60 8,063 11,197 Implemented in 1996
CANADIAN TOTAL 798 550 6,338 8,557

Source: Canadian School Boards Association

*In an earlier round of school board consolidations undertaken in 1992, the New Brunswick government had already reduced the number or school divisions from 42 to 18.

The number of school divisions varies greatly by province. Saskatchewan has 114 school divisions and a population of approximately 1 million people which means that the student population in the divisions are, on average, smaller than those in any other province. Alberta has 57 school divisions for its population of 2.5 million which means that the student population of the divisions are, on average, larger than those in any other province.

All other provinces are reducing, or have already reduced, their total number of school divisions.31

British Columbia

The Province reduced the number of its school divisions in 1996, from 75 to 60. B.C. also adopted province-wide pooling of property taxes, limiting the authority of local boards to raise their own revenue.32 They are now allowed to raise taxes for public schools only after a local referendum authorizes the measure. By the following spring, one anticipated benefit from the amalgamations, to equalize the resources of disparate school divisions, had not materialized: “The hope was that there would be enough money from the province to level out the playing field,” said the president of the British Columbia School Trustees Association. “Instead, it levelled everyone down to the lowest common denominator.”33


In 1994, Alberta announced its intention to cut its number of school divisions in half. The total number of divisions was reduced from 141 to 57. The Province also took over full responsibility for financing schools and eliminated the power of school boards to levy local taxes for education. Alberta now pools all property tax and redistributes it to local authorities. It has also announced plans to consolidate provincial authority by directly appointing school administrators, functionaries previously hired by school boards.34 In addition, however, Alberta at the same time established another mechanism to ensure accountability, namely a wide-ranging policy of school choice. In effect, it created a market in which parents and students are allowed to select which institution will receive their patronage, whether it be a regular public school or an autonomous charter school.35


The Province offered school divisions a range of choices, from maintaining the status quo to merging into large regional learning centres.36 In 1997, twenty divisions received the provincial government’s permission to amalgamate into eight divisions. The Province continues to encourage school boards to form partnerships with each other to reduce costs. Saskatchewan took a unique approach in the sense that it has not forced amalgamations as have most other provinces. Its Minister of Education called the policy a combination of “provincial leadership and local decision-making.”37 Unfortunately, local ratepayers had no say in the voluntary amalgamations, which were adopted by previously elected school boards. As a consequence, many communities and families have expressed concern about the loss of local autonomy and local schools.


The cost of public education in Ontario significantly exceeds that in other provinces. The provincial government in 1996 was spending $644 more per student than the average of the other nine provinces.38 In an effort to reduce these costs, Ontario at first relied on a policy of reducing overall spending by cutting back operating grants, shaking $1 billion out of a total $13.8 billion budgeted for public schools. As part of a wide-ranging policy of reforming municipal finance, in January 1997, the government decided to fund public education entirely through the provincial budget, removing school funding from property taxes.39 This measure, part of an omnibus education bill that eventually sparked province-wide teachers’ strike in October, 1997. The bill also reduced the number of school divisions from 169 to 72, effective January 1, 1998.


Issues of religion and ethnicity have complicated the debate about school board reform in Québec. The Parti Québecois government has replaced its system of boards based on religious denominations with one based on language.40 Amalgamations along the lines of those implemented or discussed in other provinces are included in the package, but have received very little notice compared to the politically charged move to restructure boards on language lines. A total of 156 religious boards were replaced with 70 new linguistic ones.41 In November of 1997, the Province introduced a bill that will create parent-teacher committees in individual schools. They will take over some functions previously performed by school boards. School trustees will “exercise fewer powers over curriculum and would become more caretakers than managers of school programs.”42

The Maritimes

New Brunswick has implemented the most radical changes to its school division structure. In 1992, New Brunswick reduced the total number of school divisions from 42 to 18. In 1996, it went even further by completely abolishing school divisions. Instead, three new boards or councils run schools. As of this date, no other province has followed New Brunswick’s lead of replacing school divisions with parent councils.

Each of New Brunswick’s 397 schools has a school-parent council on which parents of children in the school must have a majority of the total votes. These councils advise the principal on matters regarding the local school. The school parent councils elect members to 18 District Parent Advisory Councils (DPAC’s). These DPAC’s take the place of elected trustees and work with 18 regional directors of education. The DPAC’s have a significant amount of power and are able to veto the hiring of principals and teachers. At the highest level are two provincial boards of education, one anglophone and one francophone. These boards have three to five representatives appointed by the minister of education and one elected parent representative from each of the DPAC’s. The boards work with the minister of education on spending and developing education plans for each of the districts. In fact, the boards have the ability to veto the hiring of any of the 18 regional directors of education. Each of the above-mentioned boards or councils meets four times a year.43

School board amalgamations or eliminations in themselves have not been the salvation of educational systems. Andrew Nikiforuk notes, for instance, that “[t]he political appeal of bigger boards . . . rests on the unfounded belief that one massive and dramatic change to an institution as complicated as the public school system can achieve educational nirvana. The reality, as New Brunswick proves, is much bleaker. For all its dogged emphasis on governance (and computers), New Brunswick educational reforms have yet to show any real results for its students. On recent math and science tests the province scored near the bottom of the heap. And that’s where it began before . . . [the] centralized tinkering.”44

The words “central tinkering” are instructive. New Brunswick’s school-parent councils seem merely a gesture to retain a modicum of local input after the abolishment of school boards. The Province in fact centralized control of schools even further in its Department of Education. The fact that the councils meet only four times a year means that they have no ability to manage or direct the affairs of local schools.

Like New Brunswick, Nova Scotia has experienced two rounds of school board reforms. In the first stage, the Province reduced the number of boards from 66 to 22, and then further reduced the number to 7. Many financial issues like taxation and labour negotiations are handled by the Province, leaving school trustees more time to focus on education issues.45 In Newfoundland, as in Québec, the issue of school board reform moved in tandem with a new policy of secularizing schools. Previously, 27 divisions administered by seven religious denominations ran the schools. Now 10 divisions controlled by elected boards have that authority.46

Lack of School Choice

Until the Manitoba government implemented the Choice of Schools Act in 1997, parents were required to send their children to the public school in the catchment area within their resident division. Exceptions were made only if particular programs were not available in the nearest school, or if two school divisions mutually agreed to allow students to transfer from one to the other. For public school students, the parents’ place of residence was the sole determinant of where their children went to school.

Lower income people therefore had to send their children to schools within the neighborhood. The wealthy people could readily send their children to any school and had the resources to move so their children could attend better schools. Many simply send their children to private schools. The Choice of Schools Act provides some remedy for this problem since it allows parents to send their children to any public school in the province so long as there is room in the school and the parents provide transportation.

But parents still have relatively little control over the educational policies of the schools that their children attend. Aside from the election of school trustees every three years, parents have little opportunity to have a direct impact on school policies. The connection to the consumer is too weak to have any effect.

Voter turnout is dismally low. According to Norman Robinson, a professor of educational research at Simon Fraser University, the number of eligible voters who actually bother to mark their ballot for school trustees hovers around the 30% mark.47 But he also says that individuals who have a heavy stake in preserving the status quo, namely teachers, school board employees, and other public sector workers who benefit directly from constantly rising budgets, vote in heavy numbers, with turn-out in the high 80s to 90 per cent. “Typically then, teachers will determine the outcome.”48 Robinson adds that the typical homeowner doesn’t have a clue who to vote for among trustee candidates, with the result that they scatter their votes among all the candidates.49

The “one shoe fits all” model, in trying to accommodate diverse interests, also provides a product which is plainly unsatisfactory to many parents. In many cases, educational policies run counter to the values of a large number of parents. For example, a number of schools have sex education classes and condom machines in the washrooms which offend some parents. Elementary schools teach reading by means of the whole-language method despite the fact that many parents are convinced that the phonics method of teaching reading is superior.50 Parents who seek a traditional-style school with direct instruction instead of a progressivist, “child-centred” curriculum are not likely to find it offered in any public school. Under the current system, there is not much that parents can do to change these practices.

Finally, parents have little influence over the financial policies of school divisions. The rising school property taxes in most school divisions have generated significant resentment among ratepayers. Many residents, both parents and non-parents, are questioning whether school divisions are spending their money as wisely as they could be.

Another model of public education that’s finding increasingly popular around the world involves shifting control of school funding from the education apparatus, or the producers of educational services, to the consumers of the service. If parents had direct financial control over the schools that their children attend, these schools would have a greater incentive to be responsive to parents and their children.

School Vouchers

Dissatisfaction with the lack of choice within the public school system has brought new life to the idea of school vouchers. A voucher is a sum of money that the government would provide parents each year to spend on their children’s’ education. The voucher’s value would be the equivalent of the approximate cost of one year of schooling. Parents would then have the option of spending the voucher at any school, public or private, they choose.

The voucher system was first proposed and explained in detail in 1962 by American economist Milton Friedman.51 Friedman argued that vouchers would give parents a direct say in the type of education that their children receive. Because the budgets of schools would be entirely dependent on the vouchers that they received, they would compete with each other in order to attract the most students. This competition would encourage schools to provide the best education possible and would also make them more responsive to the demands of parents. Parents could choose to withdraw their children from a school that they did not like, meaning that schools that did not satisfy parents would find their budgets substantially reduced.

A key argument favoring the consumer-controlled or voucher system is that the children of poor parents would have some of the same options currently available to the children of rich parents. At present, only rich parents, or those willing to make substantial financial sacrifices, can afford to send their children to private schools. Under a voucher system, poor parents would acquire much more power in the educational market. Consequently, place of residence would no longer be the main determinant of where children attend school. Parents who live in poor neighborhoods could opt to spend their vouchers at schools outside their neighborhoods.

In the United States, where the merits of school vouchers have been debated extensively, a clear majority of people favor allowing parents to choose where they want to send their children to school. The strongest support for school vouchers tends to come from low-income families—particularly African-Americans, Hispanics, and other minority groups.


To improve the performance of the public education systems and encourage a more effective use of resources we recommend the following.


  1. Eliminate school divisions and school boards.

    These institutions served their purpose well in the past. But it is clear that the larger and more bureaucratic they become, the less they are able to fulfill the basic goal of providing a high-quality education. They tend to be dominated by educational elites who serve other goals. Elections have turned into pro forma exercises that mock the purpose of democratic control. School boards also seem incapable of guaranteeing high academic standards. They are now failing to provide children, their parents or taxpayers with enough value to justify their existence.


  2. Extend the Choice of Schools Act to include all accredited religious and secular private schools in the province of Manitoba.

    While the Choice of Schools Act allows parents to send their children to any public school in the province, it does not allow them the same option for private and religious schools. These academies frequently outperform public schools in student achievement despite their smaller budgets and larger classes. Parents who now send their children to private schools have to pay tuition fees over and above the taxes that they are paying to support public schools. In essence, they are paying for their children’s education twice. Government funding that follows the students to whatever school they attend would address this inequity.


  3. Institute a province-wide voucher system.

    A province-wide voucher system would swing control over schools to parents. Schools that failed to perform adequately would lose their students. Schools that succeed would be constantly forced to rethink their policies and curricula in the direction of constant improvement. A simple, per-student grant can also be adjusted to account for differences in local costs or individual circumstances.


  4. Allow each school to become financially autonomous with elected boards of parents and teachers acting as governing councils.

    Independent schools would make their own decisions about budgets, whether for regular instruction, administration, transportation, operations and maintenance or staffing. They would have a more direct stake in the efficient procurement of services and the wise use of funds than distant bureaucracies accustomed to constantly rising revenues. They would also have the ability to set their own priorities and the flexibility to innovate and meet specialized needs. More efficiency at the school level would free up resources that could be used to create a better product.


  5. Stop financing public schools by means of property taxes.

    Paying for schools with property taxes was appropriate when the mechanisms in place to assure accountability worked. That is no longer the case. The tendency of large urban school boards has been to simply tack extravagant costs onto municipal tax bills. In the extreme high property tax bills have reached a point where assessed property values are now falling, counter-productively damaging their tax base. As we have seen, ratepayers receive little protection from the election process. The provincial government has managed to record a string of budget surpluses, and has the means to pay the shortfall from eliminating school property taxes. The additional outlay, about $375 million, might be offset by increased economies and performance improvements throughout Manitoba’s $6 billion budget and debt service cost reductions from asset divestures. As, the province could expect increased tax receipts from the revival of Winnipeg’s economy that would follow as punishing property tax levels decline.


  6. Focus the role of the provincial Department of Education.

    Under a system of school-based management and full school choice, the Province of Manitoba would assume a new role, that of an educational “super cop”. Plans are now being formulated for the Province to conduct performance ratings on schools as an extension of its policy of conducting standardized tests and publishing the results. Without school divisions, the Province would also need to set guidelines and minimum standards for financial performance. If the Province is providing all the money, it must assure that the funds are used responsibly. A system of certification of individual schools will provide that assurance.

    The problems that beset today’s school boards are, as we have seen, much more acute in large urban divisions than rural ones. The changes listed above could still take place in the context of school boards, should there be enough local interest in maintaining local ones. Co-operative ventures makes sense. But divisions like Winnipeg #1, with their disproportionately high operating costs, should have a very limited future.


Capitalism and Freedom, by Milton Friedman, the University of Chicago Press, 1962.

Educational Choice: Necessary But Not Sufficient, by Bruce W. Wilkinson, the Institute for Research on Public Policy, 1994.

Expenditures and Size Efficiencies of Public School Districts, by Herbert J. Walberg and William Fowler, Jr., the Educational Researcher, October, 1987

Final Report and Recommendations, the Manitoba School Divisions/Districts Boundaries Review Commission, Winnipeg, 1994.

Financing Canadian Education, by Stephen B. Lawton, Canadian Education Association, 1996.

FRAME Report, 1997/98 Budgets, Province of Manitoba, Department of Education and Training, August, 1997.

Leaders for Tomorrow’s Schools, North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, Fall 1996, Volume 3.

Local Property Tax-Based Funding of Public Schools, by Caroline Minter Hoxby, Heartland Policy Study No. 82, the Heartland Institute, 1997.

The Market Comes to School, by Scott Davies and Neil Guppy, Policy Options, November, 1993.

The Reformation of Canada’s Schools: Breaking the Barriers to Parental Choice, by Mark Holmes, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998

The School Reform Handbook: How to Improve Your Schools, by Jeanne Allen and Angela Dale, The Center for Education Reform, 1995.


[1] The Reformation of Canada’s Schools: Breaking the Barriers to Parental Choice, by Mark Holmes, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998

[2] FRAME Report, 1999/2000 Budget, Manitoba Education and Training. The Province provides 60.6% of public school revenues, municipal taxes 34.7%, Indian bands 1.8%, private organizations and individuals 1%, other divisions 0.9%, the federal government 0.8% and miscellaneous sources 0.3%.

[3] Schools of Choice FAQ, Manitoba Department of Education and Training, the Internet.

[4] Final Report and Recommendations, the Manitoba School Divisions/Districts Boundaries Review Commission, November, 1994.

[5] Winnipeg Free Press, “Manitoba won’t reduce school divisions”, by Alice Krueger, June 25, 1996.

[6] Winnipeg Free Press, “School divisions joining forces”, by Nick Martin, September 4, 1997.

[7] Winnipeg Sun, “Boards may merge”, by Tom Brodbeck and Robert Williams, August 17, 1997.

[8] Manitoba Government Press Release, “Government Supports Voluntary Changes to School Division Boundaries”, June 24, 1996.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Expenditures and Size Efficiencies of Public School Districts, by Herbert J. Walberg and William Fowler, Jr., the Educational Researcher, October, 1987.

[11] Local Property Tax-Based Funding of Public Schools, by Caroline Minter Hoxby, Heartland Policy Study No. 82, the Heartland Institute, 1997.

[12] Understanding Market-Based School Reform, by Herbert J. Walberg and Joseph L. Bast, the Heartland Institute, October, 1998.

[13] Ibid. Walberg and Bast cite two sources for this claim: The Productivity Collapse in Schools, by Eric A. Hanushek, the Institute of Political Economy, the University of Rochester, N.Y., 1996, and The Three Ps of American Education: Performance, Productivity and Privatization, by Richard K. Vedder, Policy Study #134, the Center for the Study of American Business, 1996.

[14] Western Report, "Bigger May Not Be Smarter" by Michael Jenkinson, June 9, 1997.

[15] Globe and Mail, “Why bigger boards are never better”, by Andrew Nikiforuk, May 17, 1997.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Financing Canadian Education, by Stephen B. Lawton, Canadian Education Association, 1996, pp. 9-10.

[18] Ibid., p. 10.

[19] Ibid., p. 12.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Advanced Statistics of Education, Statistics Canada 81-229. The figures include property taxes and all provincial grants.

[22] All figures on school finances in this monograph are taken from the 1999/2000 FRAME Report released by Schools Finance Branch in the Department of Education and Training.

[23] Leaders for Tomorrow’s Schools, North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, Fall 1996, Volume 3.

[24] Items included in the 81.8% figure are teachers’ salaries, instructional supplies, plant operation, capital outlay and debt charges. Items not included are administration, conveyance and “other”.

[25] FRAME Report, op. cit.

[26] FRAME Report, op. cit.

[27] 1998/99 Budget Estimates, Winnipeg School Division #1, March 10, 1998. My figures for certain categories of employees will differ substantially from the official ones reported by the division. They lump instructional staff in with clinicians and consultants, for instance. I have considered these and other job categories that are traditionally reported as instructional to be more honestly reported as support services. Similarly, I have moved principals and vice-principals from the instructional line to the administration one.

[28] Internal Division memo distributed February 10, 1998.

[29] The School Reform Handbook: How to Improve Your Schools, by Jeanne Allen and Angela Dale, The Center for Education Reform, 1995.

[30] Numbers originated with the Canadian School Boards Association. Other changes have occurred since these data were compiled, and the chart has been updated accordingly. Subsequent changes have been reported in a variety of media.

[31] Western Report, "Bigger May Not Be Smarter", op. cit.

[32] Globe and Mail, “School boards threatened by financial reforms”, by Jennifer Lewington, January 22, 1996.

[33] Globe and Mail, “Critics, backers brace for battle on school boards”, by Jennifer Lewington, March 17, 1997.

[34] Globe and Mail, “Power struggle over schools”, by Jennifer Lewington, January 25, 1994.

[35] Globe and Mail, “Pioneering parents push for more choices in schools”, by Jennifer Lewington, April 7, 1994.

[36] Globe and Mail, “School boards to join forces”, by Gay Abbate, August 8, 1997.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Globe and Mail, “Must fix Ontario schools, minister says”, by Jennifer Lewington, August 23, 1996.

[39] Globe and Mail, “Ontario to revamp school system”, by Jennifer Lewington and Virginia Galt, January 14, 1997. Whether or not this action would result in actual property tax relief is a moot point, because the policy also involved an offloading from the province to municipalities responsibility for welfare and other services previously provided from Queen’s Park.

[40] Globe and Mail, “PQ plans hearings on school boards”, by Rhéal Séguin, February 21, 1997.

[41] Maclean’s, “A political two-step”, by Victor Dwyer, April 7, 1997.

[42] Globe and Mail, “Québec shifts school powers”, by Rhéal Séguin, November 14, 1997.

[43] Western Report., "The New Brunswick Solution”, by Michael Jenkinson, March 11, 1996.

[44] Globe and Mail, “Power struggle over schools”, op. cit.

[45] Globe and Mail, “School boards . . .”, by Jennifer Lewington, September 26, 1996.

[46] Winnipeg Free Press, “Changes begin in education”, by Michelle MacAfee, Canadian Press, December 10, 1996.

[47] Winnipeg Free Press, “Trustee race anonymous”, by Aldo Santin, September 25, 1995.

[48] Winnipeg Free Press, “Teachers key to board elections”, by Aldo Santin, September 25, 1995.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Western Report, "Mr. Jonson’s Hot Potato", by Michael Jenkinson, December 12, 1994.

[51] Capitalism and Freedom, by Milton Friedman, University of Chicago Press, 1962.