Wednesday, May 10, 2000
Halifax Chronicle-Herald

Do school boards add value to education?

By Brian Lee Crowley
WHY DO WE need school boards, anyway? Education Minister Jane Purves is probably asking herself that question after the boards mauled her government on cuts to education spending. But that’s not the reason for the question. We need to know if school boards add value to education.

Our schools need more accountability, higher standards and better cost-effectiveness. Boards provide none of these things. With seven boards covering the whole province, local control is long gone. Hardly anyone votes in board elections. Throughout the country, special interest groups, and especially teachers’ unions and education administrators, have taken control of boards and use them for their own purposes, not for education. The government wants a lot of the boards’ power for itself, which will make matters worse.

It doesn’t have to be this way. When New Zealand had to fix its massive fiscal problems, one thing it did was to dramatically restructure governance of its 2,600 schools. Local district boards were abolished and governing powers transferred to each school. By removing this layer of bureaucracy, the government saved millions of dollars. Elected councils at each school assumed responsibility for budget, staffing and program delivery decisions. Their decisions were made based on the specific needs of their school and their students. Importantly, school effectiveness was monitored by an Education Review Office, ensuring accountability for results.

An eight-year study (1990-97) by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research analysed the impact of these dramatic changes. Contrary to dire predictions, the sky did not fall. Four major surveys of parents, teachers, principals and school council members showed that the experiment in decentralization was successful. Today, few surveyed would return to the old system.

Key to the success of reform was improved accountability. Schools gained freedom to manage themselves, but were made answerable for their results. That meant focusing resources on where they would produce the best education for students. Now there’s a radical concept.

According to Helen Raham, executive director of the Society for the Advancement of Excellence in Education (, research suggests a successful decentralization of education balances increased local authority with increased accountability. It would not transfer more authority further away from the schools. Instead, it would strip out school boards, the layer of educational bureaucracy between the province and the schools, and make the schools, not provincial bureaucrats, powerful managers of education and results. The province would set curriculum and other performance standards, while schools would enjoy the freedom to choose how best to meet those standards.

Such a reform should be based on three key principles: Stronger accountability: Educational accountability must include both fiscal and academic responsibility. Nova Scotia is one of three remaining Canadian provinces that do not conduct annual provincial tests in core subjects across the grades. Without such performance feedback, both government and schools lack the data they need for quality management of learning outcomes. A provincial monitoring system is required to establish benchmarks, set targets and measure future progress at each self-governed school. The performance of school councils would be audited on a regular basis.

Statutory powers for school councils: Vest the power to make educational decisions in locally elected school councils accountable for their results. Education funding would be provided directly to schools based on enrolment. Councils would be given legislated authority to make all financial and educational decisions to meet the needs of their students within their budget. School boards would become redundant, and the savings directed to the schools and to increased monitoring of results.

Open school enrolment: If dollars follow the student in an accountable system like this, every school would have an incentive to improve its performance to keep existing students and attract new ones. Students shouldn’t be forced to stay in poorly performing schools, and schools that do well should be open to everyone who wishes to benefit from them.

The result would be greater responsiveness to local community needs, the flexibility to meet these demands, and local control of expenditures with a clear focus on outcomes achieved for students. It would end the destructive conflict over where spending cuts should be made and empower parents and educators – those most affected – to make decisions in the best interest of their students. The government of Premier John Hamm has a golden opportunity now to consider implementing such a model.

Brian Lee Crowley is the president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.
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