A Precedent For Ending School Boards

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

Winnipeg residents suffer the highest residential property taxes in the country. The combination of high city and school taxes bestows a sad legacy — a slow growth rate and among the lowest property values in Canada.

Most Winnipeggers would agree with a recent complaint from Mayor Glen Murray, that constantly rising school taxes are smothering his modest tax cuts. The public school system consumes about half of Winnipeg’s property taxes. The city has no control over that spending but is required by law to collect it for public school boards. But His Worship’s solution was off the mark. He suggested that the province amalgamate all city school boards into one giant board, to create “administrative efficiencies” and “economies of scale”. Unfortunately, Education Minister Drew Caldwell, who otherwise should be commended for talking about ending school-related property taxes altogether, reacted positively to the idea.

The vision of efficient gargantuan monopolies evokes rusty images of a wrecked giant tractor factory in the old Soviet Union. Yet the Filmon government also favored this type of exhausted public policy thinking. It believed that larger divisions were more efficient, and began a program to encourage voluntary amalgamations. Few divisions took the bait, so the Doer government now wants to force the issue. We can predict that creating one gigantic Winnipeg school division will produce an outcome more likely to resemble a rusty bucket than a sleek vehicle for schooling.

Public school boards provide mixed results in spite of constantly rising budgets because they are organized as cost-plus monopolies. It is far easier to raise taxes than it is to manage assets well, trim overheads or adopt practices that reward efficiency. Taking several smaller monopoly school boards and creating one larger one with the same weak incentives to be effective obviously gets us nowhere. In fact, the same flawed logic gave us the Unicity model’s high municipal property taxes. Professor Robert Bish convincingly argues in a recent C.D. Howe paper that larger municipal units, in fact, produce diseconomies of scale and higher costs. A lot of public services, like schooling, are highly personalized, and work better when localized.

Instead of moving backwards by tinkering with obsolete structures we need to ask a simple question: Do we still need school boards at all? The case for keeping them is exceedingly weak. A dismal 15 to 20% of the population even bothers to vote in school board elections. Many of them have no control over most of their costs. Essentially all they are is another administrative middleman between schools and the province. Herein lies a better answer for Glenn Murray to run with, why not simply get rid of them?

The latest Frontier Centre paper describes New Zealand’s experience with abolishing school boards, a successful policy change begun by that country’s Labour Government in 1989 (see www.fcpp.org). It suggests that removing the administrative middleman there has been a great success.

New Zealand’s education reforms started from a base similar to ours. The national government administered education through a complex bureaucratic structure. The Ministry of Education made all the rules and controlled expenditures with prescriptive regulations. It determined the curriculum, how it would be taught and how performance would be measured. In every region, the Ministry established Boards of Education to whom it delegated limited power.

The result was an unresponsive educational system where parents had little or no influence and which failed to meet acceptable achievement levels. Seventy cents of every education dollar was consumed before it reached the classroom. The reform package entirely eliminated all school boards and replaced them with unpaid trustees elected by parents in each school. The trustees make all spending decisions, and have full responsibility for what happens at their school. Each set of trustees writes a charter for their school, and is bound by and accountable for achieving its goals. The Ministry of Education now simply passes to the trustees a block of money determined by a formula based on the number of students at the school. It also audits school performance, measuring it against the promises made in the charter. Reflecting its new role, the Ministry was reduced to about half its former size.

Ending school boards dramatically reduced the proportion of spending devoted to out-of-class costs. The positive flipside was in the classroom where resources available doubled from 33% to 67% of total spending.

The turnabout was reflected in improved academic performance. Grade XII graduates in New Zealand now score 22% higher than their American counterparts in international mathematics and science tests.

The newly competitive culture of the New Zealand education system enjoys a great deal of public support in that land, a fact that confounds its critics. These come mainly from the ranks of teacher unions, whose influence has been reduced under the reforms.

We can achieve more accountability, a higher level of academic excellence and more effective spending in our public schools, all at the same time. But we won’t get to that spot by creating one giant, monolithic Winnipeg school board. We all share Glen Murray’s desire to do something about ever increasing school taxes on property. However, we need to go precisely the opposite way, lowering education costs and improving the system at the same time by ending school boards altogether.