Education reform in Alberta should increase choice for parents

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Appeared in the Calgary Herald, February 8, 2018

The United Conservative Party (UCP) recently released a host of policy reforms for consideration in advance of its annual general meeting in May—including some proposed reforms in education, which are unlikely to achieve their stated goals and could actually make things worse.

The proposals presume that Alberta’s K-12 education system needs repair. The most recent available data (2014-15) indicate that Alberta’s per student spending on public schools ($13,115) is above the national average ($12,646) and well above neighbouring British Columbia ($11,216).

Spending more and getting more would be reasonable. However, the data suggest that Alberta’s higher spending does not produce better results for students. Scores on international tests such as PISA, while still comparatively strong, show declining scores in mathematics, science and reading.

Which takes us back to the UCP’s plans for education. Among other proposals, the party wants to increase funding for independent schools and for parents who choose to homeschool, to be equal with public school funding. But again, it’s not clear that the problem in Alberta’s K-12 education system is a lack of resources (plus, the province already faces large deficits and mounting debt). Moreover, such funding equalization can be harmful.

Take Sweden, for example. Equal funding for all schools would move Alberta’s education system towards the Swedish model. And while there are several positive lessons to learn from Sweden, including the use of for-profit schools, the equalization of funding is not one of them. Equalization has led to a homogenization of education delivery and heavy centralized regulation of local schools, which prevents innovation and experimentation.

If the goal in Alberta is to increase accessibility and choice for parents, then a better model to consider is Australia. It recently changed its public education funding so the amount provided to independent schools is based on the socio-economic status (SES) of the neighbourhoods where the school’s students reside. In other words, students coming from wealthy neighbourhoods generate lower grants than children from poorer neighbourhoods. The grants range from 20 per cent to 90 per cent of the per student amount provided to public schools.

The Australian model is an innovative approach to varying government support based on need. Interestingly, B.C. also varies its government grants. Independent schools that spend above the average for their district receive 35 per cent of the operating amount spent by public schools while independent schools that spend the same or less receive a 50 per cent grant.

Another approach would be to base government grants on household taxable income. All these approaches are geared towards providing support to families who need it most.

Finally, while the proposed UCP reforms focus in part on funding, they ignored a key reform that relates to curriculum. A major problem across the provinces is the imposition of strict curriculum requirements by provincial governments on all schools receiving government funding. These requirements significantly impede experimentation and innovation in curriculum by regulating classroom materials and approaches to teaching.

A far better approach to education is regulating the desired outcomes and freeing schools, particularly independent schools, to innovate and experiment with different curriculum and approaches. The one-size-fits-all centralized approach to curriculum in Alberta, and other provinces, remains a significant impediment to improving K-12 education results.

There’s clearly an opportunity to improve K-12 education in Alberta. And the UCP should be applauded for thinking about education and proposing reforms. But any education reform plan in Alberta should allow schools to better satisfy the preferences of parents by innovating with curriculum and different approaches to teaching, and improving accessibility and choice for parents, no matter their location or income level.

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