Learning From Alberta’s Schools

Worth A Look, Education, Frontier Centre

The Alberta government’s recent decision to increase the grant level for private school students (from 60% to 70% of the per pupil public school amount) has come under attack by some public school advocates, the teachers’ union and opposition MLAs.

Alberta Teachers’ Association president, Frank Bruseker, denounced the decision, calling it “an assault on public education.” NDP Leader, Brian Mason, suggested that the funding increase was “inappropriate,” and that “we need to focus on building the very best quality public education system.”

Mr. Bruseker is completely wrong, and Mr. Mason is half wrong.

Mr. Mason is correct that the Alberta government’s goal should be to build the very best public school system (which it arguably already has in Canada). However, what he and others fail to recognize is that this increase in private school funding will help augment that.

Edmonton Public school division has been heralded by Time Magazine as the “most imitated and admired public school system in North America.”

What has made it so admired and imitated? Choice and competition.

In 1973, Edmonton’s public schools adopted an open boundaries rule, allowing parents and students the choice to go to any school within the district. This competition for students became even fiercer in the mid-’90s. First, the Alberta government allowed the establishment of autonomous charter schools that receive full public funding. Second, the government boosted funding for private schools from just under 50% to 60% of the per pupil public school amount.

With tax dollars following the students, it forced all schools to compete for pupils with innovations like alternative programming and more options for parents and students. This competition, not surprisingly, has led to higher parental and student satisfaction, as well as better educational outcomes. Currently, over 50% of high school students enrolled in Edmonton Public attend schools other than their local designated school.

More competition arrived with the site-based budgeting process, which allows school principals to decide how their school’s budget dollars are to be allocated. Previously, central office would decide how many teachers, text books, globes and computers each school would receive.

Central office became a service provider and handed school principals 92% of all dollars given to Edmonton Public for the year. Parents, students, schools and principals now called the shots and the central office had to adapt and provide the demanded services or they would lose their jobs to private vendors.

In the first year, demand for afterschool in-service programs — previously provided by central office — dropped by 85% while demand for technology services tripled. Moreover, the competition created by site-based management led to central office creating new service areas and products.

Parental and student satisfaction continued to climb, as did educational outcomes.

Scott Hennig is Alberta Director of Canadian Taxpayers Federation.