Plight of unique Vancouver school underscores need for school choice

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Appeared in the Vancouver Province, May 5, 2023
Plight of unique Vancouver school underscores need for school choice

Last week, a group of parents and former students of Ideal Mini School spoke at a Vancouver School Board (VSB) meeting, decrying a recent VSB decision to relocate the school from its current standalone building in Marpole to Sir Winston Churchill Secondary, a much larger facility. Parents and students worry this will be the death knell of Ideal’s unique learning environment since it will now share space with another school and hundreds more students.

Indeed, Ideal has an unusual name and an even more unique program. It’s a small high school where teachers and students are on a first name basis. There’s widespread integration between grades, and “school meetings” happen on a regular basis. Visitors will notice there are no bells throughout the school day.

Clearly, Ideal is not ideal for everyone. Students who desire a more traditional academic environment with teacher-directed instruction will likely not be comfortable in this school. However, Ideal isn’t trying to be all things to all people—it knows what type of students it seeks to attract, and tailors its programming accordingly.

What’s particularly galling about VSB’s decision is that this relocation has nothing to do with what’s best for the students or parents of Ideal. Rather, VSB is moving Ideal to make room for students from a nearby elementary school that is growing. While this decision is no doubt frustrating to Ideal’s learning community, it’s understandable. As Spock the Vulcan would say, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few—or the one.”

Utilitarian decision-making is a mainstay of large organizations including public school boards. Trustees don’t have the luxury of prioritizing the needs of a relatively small school when they have much larger schools with equally important needs and limited funds at their disposal. Thus, while public school boards may allow some specialized schools within their jurisdiction to operate, these schools will always be at the mercy of the bureaucracy.

This is why we should not rely on public school boards to provide adequate choices to parents and students. The only way to ensure the ongoing viability of specialized schools is to allow them to exist outside the public system.

For example, Alberta is the only province to allow charter schools. Charter schools are publicly funded and operate independently from any school board. They cannot charge tuition fees and must adhere to the provincial curriculum. Currently, there are 34 charter schools in Alberta.

Boyle Street Education Centre is an Edmonton charter school that specializes in trauma-informed education. More than 90 per cent of students at Boyle are Indigenous, and the school uses a wrap-around support model based on the medicine wheel. Like Ideal Mini School, Boyle has a small student body and places a strong emphasis on community connections.

If Boyle was part of a public school board, it would be at risk of having its interests overridden by larger schools. Fortunately, Boyle operates independently and has its own board of directors. Of course, these board members focus exclusively on Boyle and can ensure that Boyle’s interests always take top priority. Thus, there’s no risk of Boyle being forcibly relocated to make way for another school community.

Consider what could happen if the B.C. government passed charter schools legislation like what Alberta already has. If parents felt the VSB wasn’t taking their interests into consideration, they could apply to start a charter school based on the values at Ideal. They could form their own board and make their own decisions.

In reality, the cookie-cutter model of public education doesn’t work for everyone. Some students need a different type of learning environment. Relying on public school boards to provide adequate options to students sets them up for failure. When push comes to shove, trustees will always put the needs of the many ahead of the needs of the few.

Only by allowing for choice options such as charter schools can we ensure that parents find a school that works best for their children. This is one circumstance where the needs of the few must not be overlooked.