Let’s Dance the Dutch Minuet on Schools

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

A recent headline, “School taxes soar”, chronicles the latest minuet in our annual dance of school tax punishment. It has left tax-fatigued Manitobans feeling winded. Far from its predicted effect of economies through scale, the Province’s policy of forced school district amalgamations has made matters both more fractious and more expensive. The system needs some new music, a fresh approach to public school arrangements.

The evidence that larger districts translate into lower costs is less than persuasive. The “bigger is better” philosophy holds true only for those with fewer than 1,000 students. After that, the correlation falls apart. Many big divisions spend much more per capita than mid-sized ones.

Public schools are intensely local institutions and their governance functions best when it’s decentralized. As detailed in a new Frontier Centre paper – The Public School Market in the Netherlands, such a system exists in Holland. The government deals directly with each school, with no administrative middleman to complicate lines of accountability. Dutch parents can choose from a wide variety of autonomous schools, with no cachment districts like our school division system. The money for schooling simply follows the child, and central authorities are completely neutral about whether the provider is public or private.

The fact that 70 percent of Dutch students attend independent schools is a fluke of history. The country’s 1848 constitution entrenched the right of religious groups to establish denominational schools. An amendment passed in 1917 guaranteed equal funding, no matter which kind of school parents chose. It also gave educators the freedom to organize their academies as they saw fit, with regard to curriculum and teaching methods.

Local autonomy puts schools beyond the reach of arbitrary political and bureaucratic interference. It allows them to concentrate on educating. The necessity for schools to attract and retain support inside a competitive framework gives them an ample incentive to improve and perform more efficiently. The lack of legal barriers has created a comparatively large and diverse supply of educational institutions.

Once up and running, though, schools are subject to minimum standards imposed by the Ministry of Education. These regulate class size, exams, teaching qualifications, salaries and school fees. A common national curriculum also stipulates coverage of core subjects, and the Ministry tests for that with national exams at the end of primary and secondary levels.

But independent schools can pick teaching methods and materials and can hire preferred staff, as long as wage and teacher qualifications are met. They are also able to impose criteria for admission, including religious ones, and decide on the content of 120 teaching hours every year.

The usual critique of school choice raises fears that it may result in a litany of failing, undersubscribed public schools, or a selection process that denies poor students access to quality schools. But the Dutch weight student funding according to socio-economic background, so that schools located in less affluent areas receive a larger proportion of financial resources. The large independent sector cannot afford to ignore that market by using highly selective admission policies, and the social composition of pupils in independent and public schools reflects this.

Religion might have once accounted for the attraction for Dutch parents to independent schools, but it doesn’t explain their popularity today. With the role of tradition fading in a post-modern society, parents increasingly behave as critical consumers in a marketplace. They consciously evaluate schools to secure the best product for their children.

Independent schools in the Netherlands consistently outperform public schools in test scores, drop-out rates and academic achievement. Dutch students place among the best in Europe in literacy and numeric skills. The education system promotes the principles of consumerism, high quality and guaranteed equality of opportunity for all, without imposing prohibitive costs on parents. Government spending per student sits right at the average for other OECD countries, about $5,700 for elementary schools and $8,000 for secondary ones.

A Dutch-style system would allow Manitoba parents to hold one elected body, the provincial government, directly accountable for the quality of their children’s education. It would offer a market of grassroots, responsive schools in a more transparent system.

Perhaps dissatisfaction with the latest spate of property tax hikes will turn the provincial government to more constructive solutions than its failing policy of centralization. The Netherlands, traditionally a left-leaning liberal democracy, has embraced the market principles of local autonomy, competition and choice to build an education sector that is fair and innovative.

As taxpayers scream louder, Minister of Education Ron Lemieux has veered down the failed path of more bureaucratic micro-management. Instead, he should try the Dutch model – set the framework, create ground rules, let funding follow the student — and stop obsessing about the definition of what a “public” school is. Combine public funding, with diverse and interesting school products for parents. At the same time, end property tax funding for schools.

With an election looming, the Dutch model would be an intriguing policy choice for voters tired of Manitoba’s obsolete school districts system, which if not restructured, will continue to demand ever increasing funding through tax increases.