Lessons from Edmonton’s school system
by Margret Kopala

An edited version of this article appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, October 8, 2007

It looks as if Ontarians will again lose out on reforms to healthcare and education. Lacking any new ideas, the Liberals have nonetheless out manoeuvred the hapless Tories who failed either to research or articulate theirs sufficiently. Yet innovative developments in both areas exist in western Canada.

Predictably, allegations of “two tierism” and “Americanization” greeted John Tory’s proposal to reduce surgical wait times by funding procedures in both private and public health facilities. “It would mean that U.S. for-profit hospital company chains would move into Canada and start competing with our local hospitals for funding and for scarce doctors and nurses and specialists,” one member of the left-wing Ontario Health Coalition complained to the Toronto Star.

But when Dr. Brian Day, orthopedic surgeon and newly installed head of the Canadian Medical Association, opened his private-for-profit Cambie Surgery Centre in Vancouver, not only was there no rush to open similar facilities by Americans, most of his business derived from work related injuries. By removing them from public wait-lists, he saved the government millions in compensation payments. As to siphoning doctors and nurses from the public system, Day explained to a Senate committee how his experience was exactly the opposite. “If it were not for our facility, 35 doctors would have left (British Columbia).”

Americanization? “Why would the 30th ranked system (that is, Canada, according to the WHO) want to copy the 37th when we can copy one of the top 5?”, he queried during a Maclean’s interview. France, Germany and Switzerland, for instance, using a combination of private and public health care provide better service, at comparable cost, without long waiting lists.

Mostly, he likes the idea of competition. Instead of the block funding hospitals currently enjoy, they should be funded according to how many patients choose to use their facility. Only this way will service improve and costs decline. In the UK, this system has eliminated wait lists.

But you don’t have to visit the UK to see how a system like this works. Edmonton public schools compete for students (and the public funding that follows them) – a system which in Ontario would address not only faith-based funding but comprehensive education reform.

According to William Ouchi, professor of management at the university of California and author of Making Schools Work, the Edmonton public system was the best of the 223 schools he studied in six North American cities for offering choice and accountability. The absence of these explain why problems exist in education, he wrote, not class size, teacher training, or funding.

Or faith, he might have added.

Three years ago, I interviewed Angus MacBeath, then superintendent of the Edmonton Public School System. This week, I located him in Michigan. Now retired, he is in the midst of a lecture tour discussing public schools. “The only way to preserve the public system is to make it truly compelling,” he told me. “That way you also limit the private.”

Alberta funds all manner of schools, including charter, faith based, independent and the Separate School Boards. All must meet government teaching and testing criteria but only the Edmonton public system offers a wide variety of learning options –linguistic, religious, the arts, the sciences - which are located in schools where they are most in demand. It also makes parents full partners in the enterprise. Here, students receive a passport to attend a public school anywhere in the city. Schools are then funded according to the number of students they attract. No students. No money.

Under a system like this, how many violence plagued Toronto schools would survive? If allowed, what options would these long suffering parents choose? In any case, says MacBeath, parents shouldn’t have to pay for education twice – once for private school and, through taxes, again for the public system.

The Alberta approach works so well that in the words of one observer, “Based on PISA results (from 2004 OECD tests) for 15 year olds …If Alberta were a country, we would be ranked number one in the world in Math, Science and Reading.”

First and foremost, healthcare is about timely treatment and education is about excellence in reading, writing and arithmetic. By introducing competition into both areas, Western Canadian provinces are pointing the way forward while Ontario, as this election demonstrates, has become mired in secondary and unproductive issues.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

To comment, please send Margret an e-mail.

Let's make Canada shipshape for the 21st Century