The golden rule and the role of parents in education
Ken Boessenkool

“Research proves the most effective way to improve student learning is to ensure parents are actively involved in their children’s education.” Former Alberta Teachers Association President, Bauni Mackay

You would think, given the critical importance of their involvement, that parents would hold considerable influence over public education in Canada. Unfortunately, just the opposite is true. The nexus of power in public education too often lies between provincial governments and teachers unions to the detriment of local school boards, principals and, especially, parents.

Education is not immune to the golden rule – those who control the gold, rule. In this case, provincial governments are ultimately responsible for funding education and the teachers, though their salaries, receive a lion’s share of that funding. In addition to being the recipient of much of the gold, in nearly all provinces, the teachers unions power is bolstered by the fact that they also control the certification of teachers – you must be a member of the teachers union in order to teach in a public school. This gives the teachers unions overwhelming power over the direction of education – from teacher training, to deciding what qualifications must be held in order to teach.

Local school boards, in contrast, have lost much control over education as more and more provinces have taken away their control over the gold. Even though they may be formally responsible for bargaining with the teachers and overseeing local schools, the fact that most provinces have removed their power to tax, in favor of centralized revenue collection and distribution, means that these board’s influence is too easily superceded by provincial governments who have all the golden eggs in their basket.

And because principals are often required to be members of the teachers union, they are not an effective counterweight for parents, especially where being such a counterweight would conflict with the goals of the union.

Lost entirely in the power nexus between the government and the teachers unions are the parents. Sure, some provinces have local or provincial parent advisory boards, parent councils, etc., but in practice, because parents do not control the gold, they have little influence over the rules.

The golden rule in independent and home schools works in complete reverse. While some provincial governments provide partial funding for independent schools and British Columbia and Alberta provide small grants to home schools, in all provinces the most significant share of funding for these forms of education comes from parents. And teachers in nearly every independent school are not required to be members of a provincial teachers union.

In contrast with public education, the golden rule in independent and home schools means that parents rule. In independent schools, it is most often the principal, in concert with parent-driven school boards (or the parents themselves, in the case of home schooling) that determine the composition of the teaching staff, the curriculum and the overall tenor of the school. In other words, the power ranking is parent, principal, school board, teachers and finally, the province – just the reverse of our public schools.

And, as you would expect given the opening quote, a growing body of evidence shows that independent and home schools perform much better than public schools, even when you adjust for socio-economic factors such as education of parents and income.

The goal in public education ought, then, to try and increase parental (and principals’ and local school boards’) involvement in our public schools. Such proposals exist, but many of them are problematic.

We could once again decentralize taxing authority to the local school boards, for example. This would much better align the gold between parents (who would pay local taxes) and the school, It would increase accountability between the payer (now the parent) and the provider by bringing their financial relationship closer. The trouble is, there is a great variation in the ability of different regions to raise property taxes, and decentralizing taxing authority often results in great inequities in per-pupil funding across the province.

We might also consider emulating independent schools by giving the ultimate power to hire and fire school teachers to the principals, and perhaps even require a parent-board to hire the principal – moves that would require principals to be outside of provincial teachers unions. But, most provincial teachers unions have been very effective at preventing principals from exiting the union, despite repeated attempts over the past decade.

A third possibility would be to transfer the responsibility to certify all teachers, from the teachers unions to provincial governments, or some independent board comprised of, say, unions representatives, parents, the government and principals. This would make it more likely that schools would have a choice over whether they hire union-certified teachers or not. It might also allow for competition between various unions to represent the teachers – reducing the monopoly power that most teachers unions enjoy. But again, the golden rule gives teachers enough power in the current system to effectively prevent such a direct challenge to teacher’s unions.

The most promising proposal is to give power to parents by putting the pot of gold in parents hands. This could be done while retaining a universal education system by moving to a system of education vouchers.

The system would work as follows. Each parent with a school age child would receive a voucher from the province. That voucher could be used by the parent in any school of their choice, and an equal per-pupil grant would go to that school. A voucher-based system would therefore radically increase the importance of parents within our education system, by moving the gold from the province to parents.

Vouchers would undoubtedly also be opposed by teachers unions. Yet there are reasons that the public might be ready to back a bold government that sold vouchers both as a way to increase parental involvement and improve results in our schools.

In the first place, those provinces that have been most open to competition in education – British Columbia and Alberta fund choices in education such as charter, independent and home schools – have an obvious head start over provinces that have done little. Most provinces do not allow charter schools, provide little or no funding to independent schools, and have little legislative recognition of home schooling. Alberta and British Columbia have started the ball rolling by giving a taste of the superior results of parent driven education. These provinces are well on their way to developing a political constituency for greater parental choice. And it would only take one province to move in the direction of vouchers. For that province would demonstrate the benefits of parentally run schools that all other provincial governments could see … and emulate.

Second, a growing wave of teachers strikes is also giving rise to the desire on the part of parents to wrest control from the current power nexus between governments and teachers unions. Third, education outcomes from standardized tests and other international tools, regularly show that provinces that allow greater competition in education (i.e. funding schools that put parents first) also show the most impressive educational results.

For all these reasons and more, a system of education vouchers is not as far off as some education reformers might at first think – though they are much more likely to occur in some provinces than in others – a benefit of the federal make-up of our great country.

Power and control over public education is exactly backwards, relegating parents to a minor, if not irrelevant role, and giving most of the power to the government and the teachers union. A voucher system would return to parents the power they deserve over the education of their children. And that, as the opening quote from the Alberta teachers union suggests, would be good for everybody.

Ken Boessenkool is the president of Sidicus Consulting Ltd., a Calgary-based economic and public policy consulting firm, and an Adjunct Research Fellow at the CD Howe Institute. He has written several major research pieces for AIMS on topics as diverse as equalization and the National Child Benefit.