Most Americans assume the pride of Edmonton, Canada, is its hockey team. The Oilers have historically been one of the NHL’s best franchises, and this year, they are skating against the Carolina Hurricanes for the Stanley Cup. But education policy experts know that the pride of Edmonton is its school district, which is fast becoming a model for school districts across the United States.
In the 1970s, under the leadership of superintendent Mike Strembitksy, Edmonton reformed its school district based on two principles: school choice and decentralization.
Edmonton implemented a "Weighted Student Formula" approach to education funding. Edmonton’s schools receive government funding based on student enrollment and each of their student’s individual characteristics. Children with special needs, for example, receive a higher share of per-student funding. Parents are free to choose the best school to meet their children’s individual needs, and funding follows the students.
Principals, meanwhile, have the freedom and autonomy to manage their schools as they see fit. That’s because they control more than 90 percent of a school’s budget. (Principals in other school systems often control far less of a school’s budget, and most decisionmaking occurs in the district’s central administration.) By giving school leaders power over spending, decisions can be made by those closest to the students: teachers and principals.
The key to Edmonton’s success is the balance between parental choice and school-based management. Parents have the freedom to choose the best schools for their children. And schools have to appeal to parents by designing educational missions that they can prove are successful.
Importantly, Edmonton holds schools accountable for performance by collecting and making public data on school performance and academic achievement. Armed with this information, parents can make well-informed decisions.
Edmonton’s education system has become a model for education reformers across the United States. In Making Schools Work, UCLA Professor of Management William Ouchi led a comprehensive research study of 223 schools in six cities. He found that successful schools implemented seven "keys to success," including allowing principals to be entrepreneurs, giving schools (rather than districts) control over budgeting, and allowing families to have real choice among a variety of schools.
These are exactly the principles of Edmonton’s reforms. The result has been the creation of a school environment that fosters excellence. "In Edmonton, because families have freedom of choice, a weak school won’t be able to attract many students," Professor Ouchi explains. And since principals have real management authority, they can take whatever steps are necessary to turn a weak school around. If a principal fails, he can be replaced or the school can be closed with "all the staff moving to other, more successful schools." Successful schools thrive; failing schools close.
In the United States, public school districts are mimicking Edmonton’s approach. In a recent article for Reason Magazine, Lisa Snell describes how San Francisco has implemented the Weighted Student Formula along with public school choice and school-based management. The result has been a dramatic improvement in academic achievement: "Every grade level in San Francisco has seen increases in student achievement in math and language arts, and the district is scoring above state averages."
Various reforms inspired by Edmonton’s schools have been implemented in cities like Houston, Oakland, and Seattle. Policymakers in many other cities, including Washington, DC, are also exploring similar reforms.
School choice supporters should see the growing support for student-centered funding reforms as an encouraging trend. Edmonton has proven the value of the approach that school choice advocates have been championing for years: that parents should have the freedom to choose their children’s schools and that school leaders should be free to innovate and create learning environments to attract children. Building consensus around these ideas will further the goal of widespread parental choice in education. And while the Edmonton model is typically applied only to public school choice (that is, without private school participation), there is no reason this limitation couldn’t be lifted.