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Are school boards a good thing or a bad thing? What does an educational system look like without them? Does replacing them with “service centres” make schools more or less autonomous—and which is better?
In February 2020, the Quebec government adopted Bill 40, which abolished school boards in the province. But the English boards have been fighting the change ever since, on the grounds that it infringes on the right of Quebec’s English-speaking minority to manage its own schools, guaranteed by Article 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Over a year later, on April 14, 2021, Quebec’s Superior Court began hearing the case on its merits.
According to the President of the Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA), which represents 100,000 students and nine school boards across Quebec, “Minority communities survive on a healthy and stable education system managed and controlled by them.” QESBA Executive Director Russell Copeman argues that the new service centres that have replaced French school boards don’t have as much autonomy and independence to make local decisions.
But has that decision-making power been centralized in the hands of the Education Minister, or has it on the contrary been devolved to individual schools? It very much matters, because international studies show that giving teachers and school principals more pedagogical autonomy is correlated with better student performance.
Pedagogical autonomy means that teachers and/or principals are free to choose their student evaluation policies, which textbooks and other books to use, the content of courses, and which courses are offered in their schools. In places like Japan, Thailand, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, and the United Kingdom, where teachers and school principals have the most pedagogical autonomy, students tend to outperform their peers in countries where teachers and principals are less independent.
In a 2013 OECD study, Canada ranked just 42nd out of 65 countries in terms of pedagogical autonomy, below the OECD average. According to that study, only 25% of Canadian principals and teachers choose their own student evaluation methods, 44% choose their own textbooks, 19% choose course content, and 46% determine which courses are offered. Quebec was actually found to be the province with the highest degree of pedagogical autonomy (though still lower than the OECD average) due in part to having a large proportion of students registered in private schools, which enjoy a greater amount of pedagogical autonomy.
The devil is in the details, though, and details are hard to come by on the effects of the newly adopted Bill 40. On the positive side of the ledger, the new law has given parents the right to choose to send their children to a school outside the territory where the family resides. On the negative side, according to a recent Montreal Gazette article, while several English school boards bought air purifiers for classrooms as a COVID-19 measure, the Education Minister refused to let the new French service centres do so.
Autonomy for All
While there is definitely a fair argument to make about preserving the rights and autonomy of the English community, there is also an argument that stands no matter what language we’re speaking, which is the autonomy of individual schools, of teachers and principals, and of parents and students.
For too long, school boards have been spending taxpayers’ money without really representing the communities they are supposed to serve. Barely 5% of eligible voters actually cast a vote in the 2014 school board elections, and though this number was higher for English school boards, it was still just a paltry 17%.
English or French, students deserve to receive a quality education, and that’s why we should send money—and decision-making power—to classrooms and schools instead of to school boards. Every dime spent must be spent with care and with the goal of benefiting students.
If replacing school boards with service centres will give schools more of the autonomy they need to do the best job they can, and give more power to parents and students, then it’s the right move for both anglophone and francophone communities. But if the Education Minister ends up making more decisions for the entire province, then everyone loses.
Miguel Ouellette is Director of Operations and Economist at the MEI. The views reflected in this op-ed are his own.