In this author’s opinion, it is unfortunate that there is only limited public discussion concerning education policy. Here, the dated con cerns expressed by critics of centralization, that democratic participa tion and control would be undermined by the strengthening of provin cial control, have proven warranted. That is not to ignore the positive dimensions of centralized administration, since a relative degree of equality and expectations have been positive and worthy results. Yet debates and discussions about reforming education policy tend to oc cur within government ministries and institutions with vested interests rather than the public at large. Most parents of children in public schools, for example, do not understand the basic features of admini stration of schools, the authority of the local school board, or the weight of other institutions and organizations. Reasoned and informed debates rarely spill over into the local press, and a default policy of defending the status quo is the simplest way to gather political support in the pub lic arena.
In this light, we examine here a number of issues and alternatives in public education within the context of British Columbia and Canada generally.
Charter Schools. The Charter School movement was launched in the United States, with the first charter law enacted in Minnesota in 1991. Since then, some 39 states and 1 Canadian province (Alberta, with fourteen schools) have created a new type of independent school.
The motivation for charter schools flows from a perception that public education is dominated by regulations and bureaucratic oversight, which stifles innovation, reform, and participation. Charter schools are thus liberated from much, but not all, of the regulation, and allowed to function as autonomous institutions, creating some of their own meas ures for evaluation and success. Their authority is derived from their charter, or contract, issued either by a school board, ministry, or other institution. Because charter legislation differs from jurisdiction to juris diction, and because the charter of each school may be unique to that school, there are great differences among the 3,600 charter schools that exist in North America30.
The early promise of charter schools was to strengthen innovation and accountability, both in terms of academic results and financial costs. While some charter schools have lived up to this claim, it is also fair to point out that many charter schools have failed to provide secure environments for students and/or effective teaching. Indeed, some charter schools have proven to be very successful and cost efficient, while others have been abysmal failures, and even fraudulent31. For those who see education as a public good, government regulation to ensure minimal standards and safety is a reasonable price to pay, even if innovation and occasional excellence may be sacrificed. Just as gov ernment oversight in public catering ensures public safety and health, government regulation and oversight in education is considered a rea sonable expectation, even desirable.
Since the only Canadian province with explicit charter legislation is Alberta, it would seem that the charter movement has not made any great inroads into public education in Canada. Yet the Alberta experi ence illustrates the impact of charter schools. First, it is necessary to point out that charter schools do not see themselves as replacements for a public education system, but as a complement or supplement.
They cannot charge tuition fees, exist for profit, or discriminate in stu Chester Finn, “All Aboard the Charters” National Review Online (October 9, 2006). Mr.
Finn is president of the Thomas Fordham Foundation, an organization supportive of edu cational reform and charter schools.
Gerald W. Bracey, “Charter Schools’ Performance and Accountability: A Disconnect”, Tempe: Education Policy Studies Laboratory, Arizona State University (2005).
dent admissions32. In Alberta, charter schools must teach according to the guideline of the provincial curriculum, and students participate in the provincial wide examinations. Charters are granted to schools based on a 3 to 5 year performance review, with renewals extended to those schools that meet qualifications. Legislation for charter schools in Alberta was enacted in 1994. The first decade of charter schools led one scholar to the following conclusions:
1. The limited number of charter schools conceals a huge growth of alternative schools within the public school system. Charters are granted either from the Provincial Ministry or the School Board.
Surprisingly, applications for charters made to the local board often become the foundation for an alternative school, rather than a char ter school. In Edmonton, for example, the second largest school board in the province serving a population of close to 800,000 peo ple, there are only two charter schools, but 26 different alternative programs offered through the public schools.
2. Gaining a charter means successfully negotiating a hostile envi ronment, including much bureaucratic red tape, resistance from the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA, or teachers union). The ATA denied teachers from charter schools full membership in their as sociation.
3. Of the first 10 stable charter schools, there were three that focused on a back to basics curriculum; three that highlighted “student centered pedagogy”, including programs for gifted students; one devoted to street kids at risk; one designed for Arab speaking im migrants; one devoted to science and technology; and one devoted to the Suzuki pedagogical approach.
4. The greatest impact has not been in any stellar student success, but in the satisfaction levels of parents, who are pleased with the sense of community and participation that charter schools foster.
This being said, such a result may be the result of self selection – parents who desire more influence in school governance would be naturally attracted to the charter school model33.
Lynn Bosetti, “The Alberta Charter School Experience”, Claudia Hepburn, ed., Can the Market Save our Schools (Vancouver: Fraser Institute, 2001), pp. 101–120.
As with many reforms in public policy, it is the unintended conse quences that are most challenging to determine. Although British Co lumbia has not drafted any charter school legislation, yet it is clear that the movement has still had an impact on independent schools. As we have seen, in British Columbia (and other provinces), there are provi sions for public funding to be transferred to independent schools.
These conditions also effectively encourage school choice, even if in dependent schools are not synonymous with charter schools. In other words, 50% public funding to independent schools can be viewed as a compromise between those interested in full funding to charter schools and those opposed to public funds being diverted away from the public school system34.
Vouchers. The marketization of public education is most evident in the idea of voucher reforms. The intent of vouchers is to give parents the opportunity to invest public funds on behalf of their children to the school of their choice. In a nutshell, the per student operating grant would effectively go to the parent or guardian of the student in the form of a voucher, and from them to chosen school – public or private. In a full voucher system, there would be complete separation of the gov ernment financing of education from the government delivery of educa tion. The result would be competition among educational institutions for the voucher investment. Vouchers thus maintain a level of respect for public financing of a public good, although they represent an extreme side of the school choice movement, a much deeper extension of prin ciples underlying charter schools. Detailed arguments for and against vouchers can be found elsewhere35. Much of the criticism is again based on the worry of public funds leaving the public system, the con cern that public money would also find its way to confessional schools, and growing stratification within society. Yet early returns on vouchers in Ontario and the maritime provinces continue to reject spending public money on inde pendent schools, as noted earlier in this study. For a defense of this position, see Bernard Shapiro, “The Public Funding of Private Schools in Ontario: The Setting, Some Argu ments, and Some Matters of Belief”, Canadian Journal of Education 11:3 (Summer, 1986), pp. 264–277.
See, for example, the discussion sponsored by the Friedman Foundation, at http://www.friedmanfoundation.org/schoolchoice/index.html, or counter arguments by the Anti Defamation League at http://www.adl.org/vouchers/vouchers_main.asp.
Milwaukee, and in Canada with the foundation Children First36, clearly suggest that individuals from the lower strata of society benefit by their educational choices. The degree to which society at large would gain from having all students endowed with a voucher remains untested.
Again, the impact of the voucher debate is also evident by changes within the public school system in BC. Prior to the mid 1990s, parents were limited in the choices they could make concerning the public school for their children. Strict guidelines concerning cachement areas meant that the place of residence determined registration at the local school. A relaxation of regulations concerning the cachement means that while local residents are given priority, parents can now line up to enroll their children in any of the local schools. Enrollment means the preferred school receives the funding for that student. This has led to greater public attention towards school performance and waiting lists on preferred schools, something that would also be found within a voucher system. A full voucher system would put an end to different funding formulae and the four school groups in BC. Yet as we found with charter schools, the public system in BC has shown some flexibility and adaptability to incorporate some of the desired elements dimensions of school choice37. For parents who pay tuition to an independent school that receives public money, it is also noteworthy to underscore that those tuition costs also function as a tax credit, which means that much of the cost for independent schools is drawn from the public purse.
While a physical voucher does not exist, parents and students can vote with their feet, and their preferences are supported by government transfers and tax credits.
Evaluations. As with school choice, school evaluations are also hotly debated in public education. Canadian provinces have pooled to Children First is a foundation sponsored in part by the Fraser Institute in Canada that uses charitable donations to pay up to $4,000 of the tuition to independent schools for hundreds of successful applicants in Ontario, in effect creating a privately financed voucher.
Alternatives to the public system include home schooling, independent schools, and charter schools. The Fraser Institute has ranked the ten provinces in Canada regarding the opportunities and capacity for such choices. The ranked order of provinces (from “free est” to “least free” is Alberta, BC, Quebec, Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Saskatchewan, Prince Edward Island. See Claudia Hepburn and Robert Van Belle, The Canadian Education Freedom Index Vancouver: Fraser Institute, 2003.
gether and implemented a variety of pan Canadian assessment strate gies in a variety of subjects at different levels that allows for compari sons across provinces38. Because Canadian education is a provincial jurisdiction, Canadian provinces are ranked in assessments with other nations. Alberta and BC typically rank highest among provinces, and among the highest internationally. The opposition to evaluations comes when the data from such assessments is disaggregated from school district or province to individual schools. Critics object to comparisons among schools because such a disaggregation of data ignores the dif ferent socio economic factors that impact school performance. These same critics accept that school performance can be measured effec tively over time – assessments for one school over many years. But they reject outright that one school can be compared with another given the data from these assessments. The result is that there is constant oppo sition to the use of such assessments.
The provincial ministry of education in BC also assigns a personal education number (PEN) to each student, which allows the ministry to track student performance across time and space. This PEN number was instituted in 1992, although the Ministry has yet to take full advan tage of this opportunity for assessment. Ontario is the only other prov ince to utilize such a number, although this was instituted there only re cently.
Perhaps the most controversial dimension of education evaluation is the annual report card on schools, published privately by the Fraser In stitute. The origins of this “report card” link back to volunteer efforts by concerned parents, who then gained institutional backing and en hanced statistical sophistication courtesy of the Fraser Institute. Now published annually in four different provinces, these report cards use comparative data on academic testing, graduation rates, and sports participation for all schools, and the results are printed in newspapers in the province. To no surprise, the highest ranked schools are those in dependent schools with rigorous admission standards and higher tui Comparative assessments include the following: Program for International Student As sessment (PISA), which assesses reading, math, and science among 15 year olds; Pan Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP) tests 13 year olds in reading, writing, math and science; Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which includes BC, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec and tests grade 4 and 8 students; Progress in Interna tional Literacy Studies (PIRLS), which includes the four provinces above plus Nova Scotia.
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