Trends in Public Education Governance – Canada


In Canada, approximately 5.3 million students are served by public schools. Canada’s public education systems remain a provincial responsibility, but within that basic governance structure, change is occurring. To the international trend of substantive change to public education governance, however, Canada appears to be a latecomer.Essentially, governance is who holds decision-making authority and how that authority is administered. Many factors precipitate changes to education governance. By far the most quoted Canadian reasons are public demands for fiscal restraint and increased accountability. The predominant trends in public education governance in Canada are both a move towards centralization of control and the appearance of decentralization. The former appears to be a budget-driven process, accomplished mostly through the removal, reduction and reorganization of local school boards and their structures. The latter, through increased community and parental involvement.

School Councils Emerge

School-based management is a promising model for public education restructuring that has been fully enacted in Britain and New Zealand. There, decision-making power has devolved from regional/state bodies to the individual school within an overarching legislative structure. Governing school councils have authority over budget, staffing and program delivery. Australia, South Africa, and Ireland are moving in a similar direction. Quebec is in the process of introducing a form of sitebased management legislation with a proposed implementation date of September 1998.

Initiatives for parental and community involvement are being pursued across Canada. Part of this trend is the development of representative school councils comprised of all stakeholders In the last two years, Alberta and Manitoba have passed legislation mandating school councils. Ontario, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan are at varying stages in the implementation process. The Yukon integrated elected school councils into its public education governance structure in 1990, while Quebec’s orientation committees (councils) are over a decade old.

Outside of the Yukon, local school councils remain advisory in nature, without governing powers. A notable exception occurs in Alberta where charter schools legislation was enacted in 1995. At least two other provinces, Quebec and Ontario, are examining this concept, which ties vastly increased school-level authority to improved performance.

School Boards Consolidated

Canadian school boards traditionally go beyond geographical representation into Protestant, Roman Catholic, Francophone, Anglophone, First Nations, and combined representation boards. Despite the complexity of these existing systems, the last two years have seen school board numbers decline dramatically.

Alberta reduced school boards from 181 to 67; Ontario is in the process of shrinking 129 boards into 72; Nova Scotia moved 22 local school boards to 6 regional boards. In British Columbia amalgamation created 59 school boards from 75; P.E.I. now has three instead of five school boards. Newfoundland will replace denominational school boards with interdenominational ones and reduce the numbers from 27 to 10. Quebec is moving from 156 to 71. New Brunswick has eliminated local school boards from their governance structure, replacing them with two provincial-level elected boards which include parents.

Integrating Services

A number of provinces are exploring the idea of integrating some of the services of other ministries into the school system. British Columbia has established a Ministry of Children and Families that has direct links with public education. Saskatchewan policy actively encourages community-driven school-linked services for children and youth at-risk. Manitoba is developing a similar initiative under its new Children First program. The hope is that integration of services will maximize efficiency to clients while yielding cost reductions.

Challenges Ahead

On the surface, Canadian Provinces appear to be moving their public education governance structures in the same direction as many other firstworld nations. However, closer examination of where actual power resides raises questions. The optimum balance of tight and loose properties is still emerging.Large bureaucratic structures respond with difficulty to rapid change in society. This is one explanation for the problems governments have encountered in responding to the global shift from the industrial age into the information age. That the bureaucratic structure surrounding public education is responsible for ensuring children are prepared for the new world, highlights the need for public and government attention to issues of education governance and restructuring. Ideally this restructuring will meet pressures for accompanying restraint while building in or maintaining structures that ensure that the goals of the public education system areregularly revisited and the achievement of them is consistently measured. Research on the effects of different governance models is limited and often difficult to apply to the Canadian context. Our policy-makers require greater access to information and nonpartisan Canadian research about the effectiveness of governance structures and their role in ensuring that identified goals are met.