(Note: Angus McBeath, former superintendent of the Edmonton Public Schools, will discuss "A Superintendent’s Experience: Choice, Accountability and Performance in Public Schools" at the Mackinac Center’s Issues and Ideas Luncheon in Lansing on Sept. 13.)

Increasing numbers of students and parents are abandoning the public schools whenever they have the chance. Private schools’ market share is growing in many major urban markets, and vouchers are justified as a way to give poor and minority parents the sort of educational choice that previously was the preserve of the well-off. Yet the fact is that the public schools are the only choice that the vast majority of students have. Giving up on achieving quality public schools is to consign most students to blighted job and life prospects.

Public school reformers should draw inspiration from the Canadian city of Edmonton because that city is showing how the public schools can use the tools of choice and accountability just as effectively as vouchers and charter schools do, but without the political baggage that makes real change so hard to achieve.

The public schools in Edmonton (a city of nearly one million people in Alberta) are winning market share. In fact several successful former private schools have been welcomed into the public system. The culture of Edmonton’s schools focuses relentlessly on the educational achievement of its students, earning it recent recognition by UCLA Management Professor William Ouchi as one of the top school districts in North America. And the powerful teachers union is one of the Edmonton model’s advocates.

Three elements have been vital to Edmonton’s success.

Powerful schools

First has been powerful, autonomous schools, each with its own explicit educational mission and academic focus. New schools are founded at public expense when enough parents band together to back an educational philosophy. Private schools have joined the public system because they could pursue their educational mission with integrity and do so on the tax base.

More than 90 percent of the public dollars spent on Edmonton’s schools are given directly to the schools to manage. They may, if they wish, buy support services from the school board, but they are equally free to buy from outside suppliers if they think this provides better value for students and staff. When the school board stopped paying for electricity centrally, and gave the money to individual schools, usage fell dramatically. When schools were allowed to keep the extra money they had freed up through conservation, the school board sent a powerful message: autonomy was genuine and good management would be rewarded, not punished.

Universal school choice

Every spring, each child in the Edmonton public schools is given a "passport" entitling them and their parents to visit any school in the city. If they like what they see elsewhere, they are free to enroll there the following year if space is available. About half of Edmonton’s students attend a school outside their neighborhood. To keep transport costs low, students are given public transit passes and are responsible for getting themselves to school.

Crucially, the money follows the student. Successful schools are thus automatically rewarded with new resources. Schools that are failing their students stand out like a sore thumb, and attract a range of interventions from the school board focused on supporting improved performance, not punishment. But schools that fail their students consistently are closed — not just in theory, but in reality.

Data-driven accountability

Finally, a wide array of useful data is meticulously gathered and skillfully used to ensure effective use of resources to achieve good educational results. The amount and diversity of the data Edmonton collects is staggering.

There are not merely good quality standardized exams, but also extensive data on the socio-economic status of each school’s population, retention and graduation rates, and the level at which each student reads. Edmonton even surveys parents, teachers, students, principals and central office staff regularly on their level of satisfaction with the schools and the education offered there. The data in Edmonton drive a long-term program of intense training for teachers, school leaders and central office staff, organized with the help of a "turnaround partner." Edmonton has been skilled at using outside collaboration to act as a catalyst for system-wide improvement.

And these data are not a state secret, but are widely available. Each school is informed of what the data are saying about their performance on a wide variety of measures. Poorly performing schools must prepare remedial plans. The data is widely reported within the school system. More importantly it is easily available to the public to the point that if you phone the Edmonton School Board office and are put on hold, rather than canned music, you are treated to the latest data about school performance. Private groups use some of the data to prepare scorecards of school performance. Those passport-carrying students and their parents are highly informed and powerful consumers.

How does the teachers union react? Their recently retired president proudly claims union paternity of the system. They struck in 1978, not over money, pensions and work practices, but over a sense of powerlessness over what was happening in their schools. They were part of the drive for more powerful schools and came to accept stringent accountability in return.

Edmonton’s not satisfied yet. There is still a lot of work to be done, for example, to improve the performance of minority kids, graduation rates and, of course, test results overall need to continue to rise. But Edmonton has the information, the tools and the commitment to carry out the kind of continuous improvement that will produce these better results.

Parents, students and teachers who despair of bringing a focus on educational achievement and accountability back into the public schools should know that real reform is possible. We did it in Edmonton, and no one in the system today, not parents, not students and certainly not teachers, has any desire to go back to the old low-performance model that predominates virtually everywhere else.

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More information about the Sept. 13 Issues and Ideas Luncheon with Angus McBeath can be found here: http://www.mackinac.org/7876.

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Angus McBeath, the former Superintendent of Edmonton’s Public Schools, is now the Fellow in Public School Reform at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public policy think tank in Halifax, Canada. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy are properly cited.