Competition and the Calgary School Board

Worth A Look, Education, Frontier Centre

The Calgary Board of Education likes to paint the proposed closing of eight more schools as progress, at least in the general direction of building new suburban schools.

But this isn’t progress. It’s failure of the most obvious sort, the result of disastrous policy decisions in the mid-1990s.

Those were the days when the province created fully funded charter schools and allowed them to operate either independently or under the wing of elected boards.

In Edmonton, the public school board embraced charters. That board has gained enrolment every year since.

In Calgary, the board scorned the charters. Trustees viewed them as a sinister attempt by the province to erode public education.

They rejected every approach by charter groups; so the parents who wanted these schools created their own governing bodies and drew students with spectacular success.

Calgary’s public board has lost students nearly every year since, and now needs to close more schools. Could the reason be more obvious?

In Lakeview, there’s stunning case study that shows what happened.

Last spring, the public board finally closed Clem Gardner elementary school after bitter disputes that went to court.

On closing day in June, there were about 78 students in a school designed for 500. Whole corridors were vacant and the place echoed like a mausoleum. Any visitor knew instantly that Clem Gardner was doomed.

Today, however, 350 students go to school in the same building. They’re attending the Calgary Science School, an independent charter that leases the space from the CBE.

This is the third building for the Science School, which has been punted around like a political football.

It was first rejected by the Catholic Board as a charter. Approaches to the public board were also rebuffed, I’m told, although the board has never confirmed this.

(Yes, the elected boards disdained a school that came with a $500 million provincial grant already in hand.)

After leasing space from the Catholic board, the Science School immediately showed it could attract students, even through the two disruptive moves that followed.

Principal Ron Sweet says the enrolment will soon go to 450 or even 500, the full capacity of the old Clem Gardner building.

Sweet worked for 29 years at the public board before retiring and then signing on as the Science School’s principal.

He thinks the public board does an “awesome” job of educating kids. But he likes the charter’s ability to experiment and make decisions quickly.

The irony is that Sweet could still be working for the public board. The 350 students, with more to come, could be drawing their provincial funding for that board rather than the Science School’s own governing body.

And the enrolment could count toward the public board’s occupancy rate, hastening the construction of new schools in the suburbs.

But none of that happened. Instead, the public board rejected choice and innovation proposed by others, while proving disastrously inept at creating its own.

The new victims of this policy failure are the children, families and staff in eight schools slated for closure.

If this is progress, spare us any more of it.

(c) Copyright 2002 Calgary Herald