Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Why Do We Have Four School Systems?

A few blocks from where I live in suburban Ottawa, there is an English Catholic elementary school that just opened.

A block north of that is an impressive new English Catholic high school. At the end of my street, a French Catholic elementary school is under construction.

My kids go to an English public school, so each morning I walk them to the bus stop where we wait with other parents and children. We're a mixed bunch, like our neighbourhood. Lots of white anglophone native-born Canadians. Lots more immigrants, mostly from China and India. Everyone speaks English. Many are bilingual, but only "unofficially" since few can speak French.

School buses rumble by in a steady stream. One is off to an English Catholic primary school. The next is French Catholic. Finally, my kids' bus arrives to take them to an older, overcrowded English public school.

My daughter's class is inside the school, at least. My son is stuck in a portable.

Last week, Ontario's minister of finance, Dwight Duncan, delivered a fiscal update in the legislature. It was grim. The year's deficit is now expected to be $1 billion more than previously forecast. And long-term economic growth projections have all been downgraded in the face of worsening prospects. The province now expects many years of low growth, weak revenues, and a desperate struggle to reduce the deficit in the teeth of steadily rising health care costs.

So why do we have four school systems?

Education and health are the two giants in the provincial budget, consuming a large majority of all spending. This year, roughly $20 billion flowed from Queen's Park to the province's school boards.

That money was divided among 72 school boards. They don't duplicate services. They quadruplicate them. Everywhere you go, from Windsor to Wawa, four separate education administrations oversee four separate school systems.

That description isn't complimentary but it actually overstates the rationality of education administration in this province because it obscures the spectacular disparities between school boards.

Most of the suburban and urban boards, particularly if they're public, are responsible for students numbering in the tens of thousands. But many others - which are not English public boards - manage only a fraction of those numbers. One French Catholic board has 634 students. An English Catholic board has 649. Another has 1,281.

The English, public Toronto District School Board has almost 240,000 students.

On its face, this is absurd. Ask a thousand organizational consultants to create a thousand models for administering education and no one would suggest anything remotely like what Ontario has now.

So the obvious question is this: How much money could we save if we replaced four school systems with one?

I don't know the answer. In part, that's because the one school system could take many different forms and savings would vary from one to another. But it's also because this is a question the province's political class won't touch with a remotely controlled bomb-sniffing robot, and so almost no one has attempted to crunch the numbers.

One person who did have a look is Gilles Arpin, a longtime French public school trustee. Arpin assumes that amalgamating school boards, and cutting their overall number to 36, would produce significantly reduced administrative costs. And because schools are, collectively, well below capacity, amalgamation would permit the closure of 10 per cent of elementary schools and five per cent of secondary schools. Net savings to the taxpayer: $1.425 billion a year.

Change the assumptions and the results change, of course. Using Arpin's data, Greg Oliver, the president of the Canadian Secular Alliance, imagined a system of 52 school boards. Net savings: $743 million a year.

Now, I have no idea how solid these numbers are. But they strike me as reasonable. The system currently costs $20 billion a year, is massively redundant, and is undercapacity. Surely there are savings to be had - at a time when the province desperately needs the cash.

Yes, I am aware that French schooling is enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Catholic schools are protected by the Constitution.

But French schooling that satisfies the Charter could be provided within an amalgamated system. And the Catholic provision in the Constitution could be done away with by a simple amendment, as Quebec and Newfoundland did. (As a bonus, the most outrageous and indefensible form of official discrimination in Canada would finally come to an end.)

A more practical objection is that amalgamation would hurt the quality of education. After all, a C.D.

Howe study found that 11 of 13 "above average" school boards are Catholic. The reason for this, according to the author, is that Catholic boards, unlike public boards, must compete for students. That makes them more responsive. And better.

But a single school system need not mean a Soviet school system.

To the greatest extent practicable, key policy decisions should be made not at Queen's Park, or the offices of the school board, but inside each school. This would ensure that different ideas and approaches flourish.

And there must be choice. Permit parents to choose which school their child will attend - again, to the greatest extent practicable - and schools will become more responsive. And better.

But who am I kidding? None of the major parties would even dare to discuss reform, let alone push for sweeping change. And that will be the case unless and until bankruptcy looms.

I can't wait to hear the premier explain why we have four school systems to the nice man from the IMF.