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Friday, January 6, 2012

Alberta's Education System Offers Lesson in Competition

We posted an important address that David Cameron delivered to the Canadian Parliament last September.  One comment was particularly intriguing.  He stated that the Province of Alberta has the highest student achievement in the English-speaking world.  We weren't surprised because this blog has a disproportionate number of readers in the beautiful western Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia.  The following explains their remarkable success.

Alberta public schools have created all sorts of special programs.
By Tom Flanagan
When British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke to the Canadian Parliament, he mentioned that Alberta schools routinely rank higher than those of any other English-speaking jurisdiction in international tests of educational competence. The fact is interesting in itself, but the reason behind it is even more interesting – that there is such a high degree of competition in Alberta’s educational sector. Of course, a degree of educational competition exists in other provinces, but Alberta has gone further by combining all forms of competition present in Canada with other innovations.

The first level of competition is that between public and Catholic schools. Alberta has always funded both systems to the same degree, so the competition between them is on a level playing field. Given the prevalence of mixed marriages today, many parents can choose to send their children to either type of school.

Another level of competition is provided by private schools, both religious and secular. Depending on certain factors, private schools can receive either 60 per cent or 70 per cent of the per pupil provincial grant paid to the public and Catholic systems, while recovering the rest of their costs from tuition. This subsidy brings private education within the means of many Alberta families.

Parents deeply committed to some special educational approach can choose private schools that receive no subsidy because they don’t teach the Alberta curriculum, or the option of home schooling. These parents are free to spend extraordinary amounts of money or time on what they perceive to be their children’s future welfare.

And then there are the 13 public charter schools first authorized by Ralph Klein’s government in 1994. These schools are run by the parents who group together to found them. With full public funding, they’re not allowed to charge extra tuition, but they’re free to follow (non-religious) educational approaches that may not exist in the public system.

As these options proliferated, Alberta’s public system fought back. Public trustees don’t want to lose students because that creates immense political headaches over what to do with underpopulated schools. So public schools (and it pains this Calgarian to say that Edmonton has been in the lead) have created all sorts of special programs, sometimes even special schools, for the gifted and the learning disabled, for aspiring athletes and artists, even for girls and boys.

Throw French and bilingual schools into the mix, and there’s an incredible menu from which parents can choose. Students are bused all over town and into the countryside in pursuit of the option they and their parents find to be the best for them. If the neighbourhood public school is still the favourite option, that’s because the public schools have had to improve their offerings under pressure from all these forms of competition.

What has happened in Alberta education can be a model for other social services, such as health care. Look at the big picture. There’s a fully funded public system available to anyone who wants to use it, but there are also other options – some partially supported with public revenue, others completely private. Far from destroying the public sector, competitive pressure has caused it to improve to the point where it’s now among the best in the world.

Those parents willing to invest some of their time and money in education become benefactors to those who prefer to use the public system, because private investments lead indirectly to improvements in the public sector. Our deteriorating health-care system could learn a lot from the example of education in Alberta.

Tom Flanagan is a political science professor at the University of Calgary.

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