Montreal, February 28, 2007 – School boards are not indispensable, says Prof. Robert Gagné, director of the Institute of Applied Economics at HEC Montréal and an associate researcher at the Montreal Economic Institute. In an Economic Note published by the Montreal Economic Institute, Prof. Gagné explains that school boards form a structure that is not essential in providing educational services and that the school tax is an inappropriate way of financing education. Low turnout at school board elections shows popular disregard toward school democracy, he adds. As a consequence, he calls for the government to begin a reflection on how schools boards could be abolished to increase school autonomy, in particular over matters of personnel management. “We expect a lot from schools. We closely examine their performance. They must have sufficient administrative autonomy to meet their specific challenges,” Prof. Gagné states.
Léger Marketing poll: people in Quebec favour greater autonomy in school management
The MEI commissioned a Léger Marketing poll to learn the opinion of Quebecers on certain education reform options. It appears that three out of four Quebecers (74%) favour public elementary and high schools having as much autonomy as private schools in the hiring and dismissing of teachers. More than half (54%) of Quebecers would like the government to allow public schools to break away from their respective school boards and deal directly with the Quebec department of education, as private schools do. Furthermore, half (49%) of Quebecers would also agree to eliminating the school tax, with elementary and high schools being financed entirely by provincial taxes.
Rationalizing investment in education
Quebec’s 72 school boards form an intermediate level and generate administrative expenses through their very existence. It would be desirable to lower the costs of bureaucracy in education and to bring decision-makers closer to the customer base. School boards mention economies of scale in justifying their work, but it remains to be proven that only they can organize the pooling of services. How is it that private schools, though fully autonomous, can offer services equal to or superior to what public schools provide and do so with similar levels of spending per student?
Decentralizing the system and giving parents greater choice
If school boards were to disappear, some responsibilities could be transferred to the department of education and others to the schools. “If parents are dissatisfied, they should be able to vote with their feet and enrol their children in a different school,” says Prof. Gagné. Some parents already do this by agreeing to pay private school fees that are generally higher than Quebec university fees.
School boards are not essential
School boards appeared in the middle of the 19th century, at a time when they had a greater share of responsibility, for instance in putting up school buildings or supervising school programs. These tasks are now are handled mostly by the department of education. We currently maintain an extra level of government between the schools and the Quebec government that really is not essential. Private schools, CEGEPs and universities manage to function without it, as do public schools in other countries.
A school tax that is inappropriate
In 2004-05, school boards collected $1.2 billion through the school tax, or 15% of their income. Building owners pay this tax even if, unlike parents or the general public, they have no specific interest in education. It would be more appropriate to have the education system financed by all Quebec taxpayers through general taxation rather than through the school tax. Moreover, the school tax is used to justify school board elections. Eliminating this tax could save the cost of an election system that produces dismal turnouts – only 8% of eligible voters in 2003.
A positive international experience: charter schools
A second study released today by the Montreal Economic Institute looks at experiences in school management decentralization in other countries, including the United States. Charter schools in the U.S. are a very fast-growing sub-sector of the education system, with 4,000 schools and more than a million students enrolled. These are secular public schools not bound by collective agreements with teachers or by geographic limits on enrolment. They are administered by community groups or by private managers operating on a for-profit or non-profit basis. Their charters are based on performance contracts with measurable goals, set and controlled by government. Charter schools hire – and can dismiss – their teachers, set their budgets and control discipline and evaluation. Alberta remains the only Canadian province that permits charter schools, providing for an additional point of comparison within the public system.
A number of international studies conclude that greater school autonomy can lead to higher grades and less bureaucracy, along with innovation and increased accountability in educational services. According to Marcel Boyer, Vice President and Chief Economist of the Montreal Economic Institute, who co-authored the study, “experience shows that other models exist from which Quebec could benefit by following their example.”
The Economic Note titled “Are school boards and the school tax still justified?” was prepared by Robert Gagné, associate researcher at the Montreal Economic Institute and director of the Institute of Applied Economics at HEC Montréal. The Economic Note on the international experiences titled “Decentralizing school management: ideas from abroad” was prepared by Norman LaRocque, a public policy consultant and adviser to the Education Forum in New Zealand, and Marcel Boyer, Vice President and Chief Economist of the Montreal Economic Institute.
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