SAINT JOHN – If there is an education system in Atlantic Canada that has to move to a flexible model quickly, it’s New Brunswick, says a leading Atlantic researcher.

“Why are we still trying to have cookie-cutter schools?” asks Charles Cirtwill, executive vice-president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS). “The simple fact is no two schools are the same, no two communities are the same, no two kids are the same.”

Cirtwill, who’s about to release a study on the Edmonton Public School model, believes that city’s responsive system can be adapted to fit the needs of New Brunswickers.

“They allow the freedom inside the system for people to choose a structure that fits their need,” he says. “So if there’s a group who feels passionate that they need early immersion for their children, they have the freedom to do so and the support from the school board to try it at least.”

Cirtwill’s comments come on the heels of a controversial report that abolishes early French immersion in New Brunswick schools. Beginning in September, all French second-language programs in the province will begin in Grade 5. The underlying concerns driving the government’s decision include low proficiency levels, declining enrolments and increasing attrition rates.

Education Minister Kelly Lamrock’s decision to abandon the program isn’t surprising to Cirtwill. Education, he says, has always responded by implementing a system-wide “one-size-fits-all” solution. By contrast, public schools in Edmonton operate in what Cirtwill characterizes as “a remarkable flexible environment.

“They can get the education they and their parents want them to have so they become more engaged, get the education they want and end up with very strong results.” Retention rates are also much better, he said.

William Forrestall of Fredericton, a member of the District 18 education council (Fredericton) and an outspoken proponent of educational choice, believes that most New Brunswickers simply don’t know that the majority of democracies fund choice.

“It’s a cultural issue,” he said. Educational choice creates operational accountability, Forrestall argues. “Right now, we only have a politically accountable model.”

A few years ago, Edmonton was seeing an exodus of children out of its schools, while private schools flourished, says Cirtwill.

“They decided to respond and came up with what is the best public system in North America.

“Several studies have said so and they now have jurisdictions across North America copying them,” he said.

The Edmonton system recognizes that it costs more to educate children with challenges; a weighted student formula determines cost. They have a committee of principals who actually make the spending decisions and deliver the education.

“Because more money follows the children with special needs, they’re attractive to schools,” says Cirtwill. “It’s not about trying to get those kids out of your schools so you can improve testing results. Now those kids come with the resources to actually give them an education.”

Decisions on spending are also made at the school level, says Cirtwill, who does not believe that throwing more money at schools solves the problem.

“The studies are clear,” he said. “There is no correlation between spending and performance. “If spending money was going to give us better education, we’d have better education than we did five years ago and we don’t.”