by Margaret Wente 

Imagine a public-school system where families are encouraged to go shopping for the school of their choice. Imagine that the choice includes a sports school, an arts school, a military academy, a religious school, and Mandarin immersion. Imagine a world where all the school results are public, where schools compete for kids, and the bad schools are shut down. Imagine a world where the students regularly outperform the rest of Canada, and 88 per cent of the kids in Grade 3 can actually read and write.

Yes, this world exists. You just have to move to Edmonton.

“In Edmonton, even billionaires send their kids to public school,” says Angus McBeath, who recently retired as superintendent. Today, he advises schools across North America on the Edmonton model.

Mr. McBeath is a passionate defender of public education. He’s also a passionate advocate for school reform. “I don’t think people realize how big an achievement issue we have in this country,” he says. About four in 10 adults can’t read or write well enough to handle the complexities of modern life. Aboriginals, as a group, lag far behind. And yet, we like to think our school system is pretty good.

The three keys to the Edmonton model are entrepreneurship, accountability, and choice. The curriculum is determined by the province, but decision-making is decentralized. School principals control their own budgets and have unusual authority to run their schools and spend the money as they see fit. This is a revolutionary notion. In most places, even the smallest decisions — hire a teacher assistant or repaint the gym? — are tightly controlled from the top.

In Edmonton, parents know exactly how much money every school has to spend and how it spends it. They love the choice. Last year, 57 per cent of families sent their kids to schools outside the area where they live. In return, the schools are held accountable for results. Every student in Grades 1 through 9 is tested every year. If pupils aren’t doing well, teachers are not allowed to blame parents.

Edmonton has its share of disadvantaged kids. A quarter of its 80,000 students are lower income, and 7,000 are aboriginal. Mr. McBeath argues that the best social program you can offer kids is literacy. And so the focus on literacy is intense. “We had to give up a lot of traditional things schools were involved in,” he says, “because you can’t do everything.” There’s less time now for Christmas concerts and raising money for tsunami victims. But the focus is paying off. In some lower-income schools, every child has passed the achievement tests. “These children will now be able to take advantage of Canada as a meritocracy.”

The city still has major challenges. Dropout rates remain too high — partly because of a red-hot economy where a kid with muscles can find a job for $35 an hour.

Mr. McBeath argues that the biggest obstacle to reform is the educational ruling class — the school boards, bureaucrats, principals, and teachers unions. “The ruling class never voluntarily reforms itself,” he says. The problem with public education is that it operates like a monopoly, even though it isn’t. Affluent families can always opt out. The trick is to keep the affluent opting in — and one way to do that is to recognize that one size can’t possibly fit all. In order to increase choice, Edmonton has even got three large Christian schools to join the public system.

Edmonton’s success is one of Canada’s best-kept secrets — except in places like New York, Houston, Seattle and Oakland, Calif., which are determined to adopt important elements of its approach. Some Atlantic provinces — where school achievement is the lowest in Canada — are interested, too.

Here in Ontario, alas, the public has the sense that the education crisis has largely passed. Gerard Kennedy, the former education minister who wants to be the federal Liberal leader, is widely considered a success because nobody’s been on strike lately, and class sizes for the younger kids have shrunk.

Meantime, a giant, immovable bureaucracy has stifled real reform. The largest school boards are mired in yet another funding crisis, and a startling number of nine-year-olds still can’t read. No one is thinking of hiring Angus McBeath. He’s too dangerous.