Frontier Centre for Public Policy – April 11, 2004 – More Choices Improve the Quality of Education -by Mark Milke with files from David Staples, Victoria Times Colonist, March 22, 2004

The provincial government has been spectacularly weak in taking on vested interests. The Liberals were given a huge mandate in 2001 for change, and other than one swell idea — cut personal taxes by 25 per cent — they’ve managed to do little since but tinker with the engine of government when what was needed was an overhaul.

With apologies to Winston Churchill, never have so many done so little with so much potential.

One area where this is painfully obvious is in their approach to education. Christy Clark, probably because she is a federal Liberal (and thus genetically programmed to prefer the status quo) was mostly unremarkable as education minister.

Now, the new education minister, Tom Christensen, complained recently that the B.C. Teachers’ Federation was “playing politics” by directing five million bucks into negative advertising against the Liberals.

No kidding.

A glance at the BCTF Web site and one would think Gordon Campbell and his colleagues are right up there with Osama bin Laden.

The BCTF campaign aims to “defend public schools.” Sure it does. That’s always the claim from government unions vis-a-vis the public. “Give us more money and we’ll protect you” is the claim. Translated in this case it means: Give us your kids, your money, and when you want accountability and choice in education, we’ll fight.

Think I’m exaggerating? Mention “school choice” to any hidebound BCTF member — which for the record excludes plenty of independent-thinking teachers who can’t stand their union’s groupthink — and they will look at you as if you’d suggested sending children to work in salt mines.

What’s tragic about B.C.’s education system is that when the Liberals gained power in 2001, they looked ready to promote reform. The best indication of this was the hiring of Emery Dosdall as the new government’s deputy minister of education, a position he still occupies.

Dosdall has a legendary reputation in Alberta and especially in Edmonton where he was head of the Edmonton public school system between 1994 and 2001. While Edmonton’s public school system was reforming before he came along, there is no question that his mid- and late-1990s reforms also helped turn that system into a model for the entire continent.

Last October, Time magazine labelled it the “most imitated and admired public school system in North America.”
So what did Edmonton and Dosdall do right? Starting back in the 1970s, Edmonton allowed parents to send their kids anywhere in the system. This “open boundaries” approach allowed the system to deal with the hollowing-out of inner city schools when the population declined, especially when combined with the promotion of alternative programs that might be centered and specialized in one school.

Fast forward to the present. Does your kid have a penchant for one of the following: ballet, soccer, hockey, Mandarin, Arabic, the performing arts, or even military history? How about an interest in French, Ukrainian or religious teachings? Those and other alternative programs (29 in all) are available at 80 of the 200 public schools in Edmonton.

One of Dosdall’s goals as superintendent was to make sure that parents and kids had a wide variety of — hold your breath for this nasty word — choice. The theory was that if the public system offered choices, parents wouldn’t feel the need to send their kids to private schools.

Remember that in Alberta, there is a strong and fully funded separate (Catholic) school system. In Edmonton, it is one-third the size of the public school system. Also, in the mid-1990s, Ralph Klein’s government authorized a number of charter schools in an effort to promote even more choice, innovation and competition.

While charter schools had their critics — some argued they gave too much power to parents in the administration of schools and not enough to teachers — they did spur reforms in the public school system, so much so that over the last several years even some Christian schools joined the public one.

There were a number of other changes over the years, including school-based budgeting which allowed principals much more control and teachers much more direct access to the final decision-maker than had existed previously.

Students of the Edmonton public system and any teacher I’ve talked to from Edmonton are generally happy with the reforms; they no longer feel like they’re the mere victim of a distant school board or an inflexible union. And Edmonton’s success is now being studied by jurisdictions from New York to Seattle and various cities in between.

Meanwhile, back in B.C.’s union version of Pyongyang, the BCTF once praised their new leader because she once went to Zacatecas, Mexico, where, we are told, she learned about “how the forces of globalization and neo-liberal economic policy are having a grave impact on public education.”

Oh, please. Jinni Sims should study reforms closer to home. And the new minister of education, rather than banging his head against the BCTF’s 1960s-era wall of ideology, should unleash his deputy minister to start some serious reforms. Enough tinkering.