More Choice a Good Thing For School Boards: Look to Edmonton for successful public schools

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra


Like many other urban school divisions, the Toronto District School Board continues to struggle with declining enrolment due to private school competition and parents who move to the suburbs. However, a plan for the development of specialty schools could be just the thing needed to rejuvenate Toronto’s stagnated public school system—provided they do it right.
Education director Chris Spence recently announced that the Toronto school board plans to allow four specialized elementary schools to open in September 2011. These include two single-sex schools (one for boys and one for girls), a choir school and a sports academy. They will operate within the public system and have an open enrolment policy. No tuition fees will be charged.
Allowing parents more choice in the schools their children attend is a welcome change from the usual one-size-fits-all model imposed on neighbourhoods by public school boards. By enabling the creation of specialty schools within the public system, school boards can meet the needs of parents who would otherwise choose to enrol their children in private schools.
What’s happening in Toronto is by no means unique to that city. More than two decades ago, the Edmonton Public School Board embarked on a revolutionary set of changes when they made choice the foundation of their approach to education. Some of the specialty schools to choose from include those that focus on Aboriginal education, sports, science, the Waldorf approach, Christian education, and performing arts. Parents also have the option of sending their children to regular neighbourhood schools.
While many cities have seen an exodus of students from their public schools, Edmonton experienced the reverse. Because of the many choices available to parents within the public system, there is little need for private school options. In fact, some of Edmonton’s public schools are former private schools that willingly joined the public system because of the flexibility provided by the school board.
However, in order for the success experienced by Edmonton to be replicated in other cities such as Toronto, there are a number of things school boards need to keep in mind.
The first is that school boards must embrace choice as an integral part of their overall philosophy and not simply as another fad to implement on a trial basis in a few isolated pockets. While it is positive that Toronto will allow for several specialty schools, that school board should go much further than this. There’s no reason to limit choice to only a few groups of parents. All parents should be able to send their children to the school that best meets the needs of their children.
Also, it is important to allow a variety of different specialty schools to emerge. As long as schools follow the basic curriculum and all other provincial guidelines, there’s no reason for school boards to arbitrarily restrict specialty schools to those preferred by individual board members or administrators. Limited choice results in limited results. If the numbers warrant it, parents should be able to have a school that emphasizes the specialty of their choice.
Another key aspect of the Edmonton model is how principals are given control over their own budgets; that allows them to create the most effective environment possible. More than 90 per cent of every dollar raised by the Edmonton Public School Board is controlled at the local level by individual principals. This flexibility gives principals the authority they need to manage their schools effectively.
However, local school autonomy needs to be combined with accountability. Edmonton principals are held accountable for their results: students write regular standards tests in the core academic subjects with each school’s results made available to the public. As a result, this data becomes part of what parents take into account when deciding where to enrol their children.
In short, school boards need to ensure that choice is made available to all parents, be open to a variety of specialty options, give school principals greater autonomy, and hold schools accountable for their results through the use of standardized achievement tests in the core subjects.
If Toronto and other urban school boards follow Edmonton’s lead, Canadians could see a real revolution take place in the quality of education provided to our children.