On Role of School Boards; Parents’ Competence

Question 1: I have two questions, really. First, would you describe your relationship with your school board? And second, don’t you put a lot of faith in parents to make the right decision?

McBeath: OK. The school boards back home are elected by the citizens of the city, and they are responsible for the quality of the programs offered by our schools in Edmonton. They have been absolutely instrumental in putting up with superintendents who demanded that we make changes that make our systems more effective. And the board actually set some numerical goals for the districts that are very demanding. They have a public commitment that by the end of next year, 85 percent of Edmonton Public School kids will graduate from high school. They do that kind of thing.

Should we allow parents to make decisions? Well, I don’t know, not all parents make good decisions, and my son told me about a year ago that I had done a terrible job of bringing him up to understand the true cost of living. Trust me, I nagged him faithfully for the first 26 years of his life about the cost of electricity, what happens in Canada when you leave the doors open in the winter, shutting off lights, not shoving your foot in your shoe and breaking the back of it — believe me, I nagged him incessantly. He finally moved out into his own apartment, and a year later, he castigates his mother and me, saying that we did a lousy job of teaching him how much it costs to live. Yet God, somehow in his wisdom, allowed me to have that child in my presence. So I know of no better people to raise children than parents. I think even bad parents, as ineffective as they may be, want their children to do well. We trust parents to fill our legislature. They vote for city council; they vote for the legislature; they vote for presidents; they vote for senators; and they vote for congressmen. Parents choose where to live, how they want to live and what vehicles to use. I think most parents make the best decisions they know how.

In Edmonton, parents love the fact they have the power — they have some purchasing power — over what happens to their children. Does every parent make a good decision? No. But not every parent made a good decision when the system was centralized with a few bureaucrats downtown, because essentially you say, "Here’s your zip code; this is where you go to school." Is that more thoughtful or less thoughtful than a parent actually visiting six high schools and sitting down and talking to the principals and the guidance counselors in six high schools and observing the results and looking into the classrooms? On the whole, it seems to me that parents will always make better decisions than the state as to what’s good for their kids.


On Private Schools

Question 2: You made the comment that basically your mission was to make a public school more successful, even if that meant competing to get the students and allowing Christian and private schools to come in. I’m curious about your argument against those schools.

McBeath: I have no argument against charter schools or private schools, never, ever, ever. My perspective was only: Tell me what you’re getting in private education and charter education. What are we not providing you in public education? Would you be willing to come join us if we were comparable or perchance better? But I love charter schools and private schools because they keep us on our toes. In Alberta, if we got rid of the charter schools and private schools, and if you were only allowed to go to a public school, then I think our public schools would relax.

Question 2 continued: You mentioned that 82 cents or 80 cents of the money follows the child?

McBeath: No, actually, it’s 100 percent. All of the money to run Edmonton Public Schools comes from the state, because the state removed the right of the school boards to tax in ’94. So 100 percent of the funding comes from the state, and we send 82 cents of every dollar that comes from the state out to the schools, or we give them an 82 cent line of credit.


On the Effect of Open Enrollment

Question 3: One concern that I’ve always had about absolute free choice on what school to go to is that you get an unintended skewing of your student body, in this sense: Parents who care pick the best schools, and their children are most likely to do well. Parents who don’t care leave their children in the remaining schools and don’t do well. You’ve now lost the ability of students to reinforce each other.

McBeath: OK. In systems where there is no choice and the state makes all of the decisions for kids whose parents don’t care, are those kids thriving in Michigan?

Question 3 continued: No, they’re not.

McBeath: In Edmonton, if you are an underperforming school, you would not be allowed to continue operating that school in an underperforming way. A child should not have to be lucky enough to have a caring parent in order to get a good education.

One of the very poorest schools in Edmonton serves our most high-risk population. In our city, to be high-risk is to be aboriginal, which is Canadian-Indian. They are the children who do the worst. Yet every one of the school’s grade sixes two years ago passed the reading test. At the time, I was training some senior executives in our system on how to do a school interview with a principal, and I took them to the most affluent school in the city, and the principal had six kids who didn’t pass the grade six reading test. And I said to her, "Those six kids are not going to graduate from high school," because we know that kids who can’t read at grade three will not generally finish high school, whether their parents care or don’t care. So I said: "You are going to have to go to this other school, absolutely on the other side of the city. I need you to walk into those classrooms working with that principal to learn how to get your results to the same standard as his results."

So parental choice should not influence the quality of the teaching, because you need good teaching in every room for kids whose parents care and for kids whose parents don’t care. I don’t think parental choice is what should determine quality of schools. We deliberately put our most interesting, innovative programs in our least affluent schools in order to make sure that children in nonaffluent schools are getting innovative, exciting programs. I think choice has the potential to do what you say if there are only islands of goodness in a system and middle-class and upper-middle-class parents generally know how to find those islands. I don’t think there can be islands of quality in a school system. It’s like water, right? In this city, should only the well-to-do get water that isn’t contaminated? Or should I be able to turn on any tap in Lansing and get water that won’t kill you?

So I think you should be able to send your child to any teacher in Edmonton and find the teaching is good. That’s the only way in my view that you protect children. People think that choice is the whole thing, and I think that choice alone is not enough. I don’t think parents can have enough understanding of what goes on in the room to always know, so we have to protect them by making sure there is high-quality teaching in every school. Sorry for the long answer.


On Parochial Schools Joining the Public System

Question 4: I represent the Catholic and nonpublic schools in the state. If I very badly want to be a part of your system, but I cannot have my children educated in a place where they don’t have a faith connection to what I believe, may I still come and join you?

McBeath: Yes, you can. We have schools that are all Christian, and we have pockets of Christian programs that exist within a bigger school. We have one school in Edmonton where kids are in the Arabic program and kids are in the Christian program, and then there are kids who are in neither, and the Arabic community is happy, and the Christian element is happy. So if you wanted to come to us and say, "Would you offer a program in this system where my child can learn in a Christian environment and gain knowledge of Scripture and the values that are associated with our belief system?" you could do that within the public schools. Our view is you shouldn’t have to pay twice to get one good education.


On Contract Negotiations, Support Services and Small Schools

Question 5: I like what I’m hearing, but what I recognize is that when you have empowered these principals with the privilege of independence, along with that come the accountability and the responsibility which help ensure their success. That’s my interpretation of what you have said here today. What I’m looking at, though, are two different aspects that are crucial to that success. One is the negotiating power that the administration would have to work with unions — because the teachers are part of unions, as probably are custodians and others — so that you’re not crushing them, but where maybe you go to that union member for a service, and maybe you don’t and go outside to someone else based on need. That negotiation sounds critical, and I would be interested to know how that is accomplished.

McBeath: First of all, with our custodian union, you may not use anything but in-house custodians. You may not contract out support staff or teachers. You can only contract out trades and other services. So I don’t think in our country, in our province, in our city, we would have been able to contract out cleaning and secretarial support services. And in fact, we did have a pilot program in our system where we contracted out custodial and in-house custodial, and we had the university do an audit of the quality of the contracted-out and the quality of the in-house, and the in-house people won.

Question 5 continued: Well, did I understand, though, that within the contract negotiations phase, I might choose a specialist in a trade or I might choose a consultant who is a union member from anywhere in the system?

McBeath: Yes.

Question 5 continued: Not one that has been assigned to me. So that helps keep that edge up.

McBeath: Now we have reading specialists who are booked up a year in advance. We unfortunately had some reading specialists that nobody wanted. Nobody wanted them before, and nobody wanted them afterwards. Before, they were assigned to you, and you got them whether you wanted them or not.

So I guess if no one wants your service, you have to either do a standard teaching job or you have to be assigned to something else — or maybe you say this work is no longer for me. So there was some barometer-rising with our unions around some of these issues. But it was very hard to argue that we should provide services nobody wants.

Question 5 continued: I just have one other aspect of this, and it has to do with numbers. How many students in your buildings? Did you find that there is a certain number at which it affects your success? Or let’s say you have 2,000 or 3,000 students in your building. Is that less successful?

McBeath: Our largest building holds about 2,200, so we would never agree to build anything bigger than that. In fact, we got permission from the state to build a new high school. I think we targeted it at around 1,200. So we would prefer buildings that are smaller, and there are lots of studies on size of buildings. I happen to think that high-quality teaching and leading is more important than the size of the building, and besides, you’re stuck with the buildings that the state gave you in the first place, so you have to live with the square footage that you’ve got and try to do a good job with what you’ve got. My advice is, Don’t build big buildings.

Moderator: That’s all we have time for. Thank you very much, Angus.

McBeath: You are very welcome.