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Like many other urban school divisions, the Toronto District School Board continues to struggle with declining enrolment due to private school competition and parents who move to the suburbs. But a plan for the development of specialty schools could be just the thing needed to rejuvenate Toronto's stagnated public school system - provided it does it right.

According to education director Chris Spence, the Toronto board plans to allow four specialized elementary schools to open in September of 2011 - a school for boys, a school for girls, a choir school and a sports academy. They will operate within the public system and have an open enrolment policy. No tuition fees will be charged.

Allowing parents more choice is a welcome change from the usual "one size fits all" model imposed on neighbourhoods by public school boards. By enabling the creation of specialty schools within the public system, the boards can meet the needs of parents who would otherwise choose to enroll their children in private schools.

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What's happening in Toronto is by no means unique. More than two decades ago, the Edmonton Public School Board launched a revolutionary set of changes when it made choice the foundation of its approach to education. Some of the specialty schools include those that focus on aboriginal education, sports, science, the Waldorf approach, Christian education, and performing arts. Parents also have the option of regular neighbourhood schools.

While many cities have seen an exodus of students from their public schools, Edmonton experienced the reverse. Because of the many choices available to parents within the public system, there is little need for private school options. In fact, some of Edmonton's public schools are former private schools that joined the public system because of the flexibility provided by the school board.

For the success experienced by Edmonton to be replicated in other cities such as Toronto, however, there are a number of issues school boards need to keep in mind.

The first is that the boards must embrace choice as an integral part of their overall philosophy and not simply as another fad to implement on a trial basis in a few isolated pockets. While it's positive that Toronto will allow for several specialty schools, that school board should go much further. There's no reason to limit choice to only a few groups of parents. All parents should be able to send their children to the school that best meets the needs of their children.

Also, it's important to allow a variety of specialty schools to emerge. As long as schools follow the basic curriculum and all other provincial guidelines, there's no reason for boards to arbitrarily restrict specialty schools to those preferred by individual board members or administrators. Limited choice results in limited results. If the numbers warrant it, parents should be able to have a school that emphasizes the specialty of their choice.

Another key aspect of the Edmonton model is how principals are given control over their own budgets; this allows them to create the most effective environment possible. More than 90 per cent of every dollar raised by the Edmonton Public School Board is controlled at the local level by individual principals. This flexibility gives them the authority they need to manage their schools effectively.

But local school autonomy needs to be combined with accountability. Edmonton principals are held accountable for their results: Students write regular standards tests in the core academic subjects with each school's results made available to the public. As a result, this information becomes part of what parents take into account when deciding where to enroll their children.

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In short, school boards need to ensure that choice is made available to all parents, be open to a variety of specialty options, give principals greater autonomy, and hold schools accountable for their results through the use of standardized achievement tests in the core subjects.

If Toronto and other urban school boards follow Edmonton's lead, Canadians could see a revolution take place in the quality of education provided to our children.

Michael Zwaagstra is a Manitoba high-school teacher and research associate at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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