What we can learn from the high schools of Poitou-Charentes

On the whole, school boards are poor examples of democratic governance. These local authorities, in charge of the operation and administration (including financial administration) of a set of schools, attract little interest from voters: voter turnout is typically even lower than the already low level of participation in municipal elections. In Quebec, voter turnout in the last province-wide school board elections in 2007 was 7.9 per cent, down from 8.4 per cent in 2003 and seven points lower than the turnout in the 1998 elections. By way of contrast, voter turnout averaged 45 per cent in the 2009 Quebec municipal elections.

With responsibilities including curriculum implementation, human resources, student enrolment and the management of buildings and other facilities, school boards have increasingly been criticized for bureaucratic excess. They are viewed as ineffective, if not useless, and an obstacle to school autonomy. Criticism tends to focus on the size and complexity of school boards, which makes them unresponsive and unable to adapt.

These criticisms have led to numerous discussions and proposals about school board governance in recent years. Some proposals seek to boost electoral participation by addressing school board election procedures. A popular such proposal is to have the dates of school board elections coincide with those of municipal election. A second solution, favoured by Quebec’s right-of-centre, is simply to abolish the school boards.1

The most complex set of proposals seeks to strengthen school autonomy through greater citizen involvement. In concrete terms, this translates into two different views of citizen participation. On the one hand, citizen involvement can mean the introduction or improvement of a system of parental choice, for example through the use of vouchers. Vouchers allow parents to choose the school that they prefer for their children’s education (private or public, in or outside their neighbourhood). The opposing view of citizen involvement supports the development of participatory mechanisms at the school or school board level. Typically such proposals entail various kinds of user committees on which members, usually parents, are designated as representatives at the school, rather than being elected in a school board election.

In my view, abolition is too radical and risks leading to the centralization of school governance in the hands of provincial education departments. Some degree of decentralization toward school boards is needed to adapt provincial policies to the reality of each region. On the other hand, the proposals addressing election procedures and parent representation do not go far enough to foster school board democracy because they fail to address the structural problem that most school boards face.

The unpopularity of school boards stems primarily from a lack of information about their responsibilities and the work done by elected school board representatives. In a Quebec opinion poll conducted by the Conseil Supérieur de l’Éducation in the spring of 2006, 29 per cent of respondents said that they were very or quite satisfied with school boards, while 55 per cent stated that they were unable to answer. Rather than being dissatisfied with school boards, citizens have little knowledge or understanding of them.

Media coverage of school board issues is extremely limited, school board political parties are nonexistent and very few citizens’ groups are mobilized around local school issues. But it is the media, political parties and associations that provide citizens with the information needed to make judgements about election campaign issues and the record of incumbents. In their absence, the cost of obtaining information is too high for most people. A low-information environment is characteristic of local-level politics generally, but especially of school boards.

If we are to strengthen school board democracy, we will need to find ways of improving the information environment. In this article I propose another mechanism, beyond reforming election procedures and parent representation: a participatory transformation that allows for the involvement of all members of the local education community – parents, students, teachers, professional and school support staff and principals. I contend that citizens will better understand the strategic role of school boards if a participatory mechanism that makes school governance issues more visible is put in place. Making issues more visible means bringing information, issues and debates about our schools into the public arena. With more information, citizens would better understand the role of school boards and the specific issues involved at this level – and participate more effectively.

The argument is based on a case study of school governance in the Poitou-Charentes region in west-central France, where a participatory budget has been implemented at the high school level since 2005. This process has resulted in greater transparency and the dissemination of more information about school boards. In what follows I first describe participatory budgeting and then set out how it works in Poitou-Charentes, and how it has changed the local education community.

Porto Alegre: The origins of participatory budgeting

A participatory budget (PB) is a mechanism that was first introduced in 1989 by the municipal government of Porto Alegre, a city of a million and a half people in southern Brazil. Each year Porto Alegre’s citizens are involved in budgetary decisions through a mix of popular assemblies and representative forums.

In the first round of the process, participants identify their neighbourhood’s most pressing needs in the way of facilities (citizens are not involved in decisions on the current budget for such things as salaries and energy). In the second round, citizens choose among the city’s investment budget priorities for the current year and identify the criteria for fairly redistributing investments among neighbourhoods according to their needs. In social housing, for example, those neighbourhoods that need more money will receive more. To help the citizens make these choices, the municipality provides information and data on every neighbourhood. The data serve as a basis for discussion, allowing citizens to compare the needs of other neighbourhoods with their own and vote accordingly.

From Porto Alegre, PB has spread to many other municipalities, especially in Latin America and Europe. UN-Habitat, the global justice movement and even the World Bank have introduced many people and numerous governments to PB, arguing that it can be an effective tool for fostering redistribution, transparency and optimal administrative practices. In recent years, the growth of PB has led to the Porto Alegre process being applied in new and innovative ways. One such case is the adaptation of PB to high schools in Poitou-Charentes.

Poitou-Charentes: Participatory school budgeting

PBs are relatively uncommon in France, and the best-known PBs in Europe are in Rome and Seville. This makes the fact that the PB experience in Poitou-Charentes is seen as one of the most innovative in Europe especially impressive.2 France has three types of local elected authorities – municipalities, departments and regions – and Poitou-Charentes is one of 22 regions. Each local authority is responsible for the day-to-day management of a part of the school system: municipalities for elementary schools, departments for junior high schools (collèges) and regions for senior high schools (lycées). Their main responsibilities are for the management of school buildings, the organization of certain services (transportation, cafeterias, etc.) and the hiring of nonteaching staff.

About one quarter of the regions’ budgets goes to high schools. Each region is run by an elected president and council. Since 2004, the President of Poitou-Charentes has been Ségolène Royal (who was the unsuccessful Socialist candidate in the 2007 French presidential election). In 2004, the main planks in her platform were participatory democracy and, specifically, participatory budgeting, which was implemented when she was elected. This is how it works.

In the first term (September to December), each lycée’s “local education community” is invited to a public meeting at the school, where regional public servants introduce the process. Later, the meeting is split into groups of 10 to 20 participants to discuss the following year’s investment priorities for the school. These discussion groups involve every member of the school’s community – students, parents, teachers, the principal and professional and support staff. The proposals from each are then forwarded to the regional public administration, which assesses the cost entailed, eliminating those in excess of 150,000.

A list of projects (retained and excluded) is made public before a second public meeting, held during the second term. This is now the time for deliberation. The school’s education community discusses each proposal, comparing costs and benefits. At the end of the meeting, everyone casts 10 votes, which they can divide as they wish among the proposals. The votes are counted and each school’s s top three proposals are implemented over the next year. This rapid implementation of the accepted proposals proved a major factor in generating participation and support, providing all members of the local education community with evidence that it was in their interest to become involved.

In 2006–07, 44 per cent of the implemented projects involved student cultural, environmental, athletic and cooperative activities, 22 per cent involved upgrading school facilities (such as cafeterias, residences and sports fields), 16 per cent involved upgrading teaching facilities (computer equipment, library materials, etc.), 11 per cent involved improving indoor and outdoor spaces, and 3 per cent involved improving working conditions for support staff. Between 2005 and 2010, almost 1,400 projects were funded through the PB process, distributed among the 93 Poitou-Charentes general and vocational lycées.

Here too, as with the Porto Alegre PB, researchers monitored and assessed the process,3 leading to improvements in the PB process each year. In 2011, a major change introduced the principle of equity into the distribution of projects among high schools. Until then, there had been no mechanism for giving priority to the high school communities with the greatest needs, as is the case in Porto Alegre. Equity entered at the level of the local education community. The PB process for the first time made it possible to give consideration to the needs of certain groups and to have projects adopted that would otherwise have been ignored. Examples include a new dishwasher to replace one that was constantly broken, subsidies to allow students from poor families to participate in cultural activities, a relaxation and game room for a residential school and a locker room for support staff.

As in Porto Alegre, under the new 2011 PB process redistribution takes place within the region. An intermediate step was inserted between the first and second high school meetings: a regional meeting involving representatives from every Poitou-Charentes lycée. The representatives deliberate on criteria that the region will use to distribute the budget among the schools so that the amount of money available for each lycée is based on its needs.

In 2011, three criteria were established: the state of buildings and facilities, a rural geographical location (lycées in areas with fewer cultural and sports facilities that are difficult for students to get to) and the percentage of low-income families. The lycées are then divided into three categories. The 20 schools deemed most needy on the basis of three criteria each receive €150,000, the middle category €66,000 and the least needy lycées €30,000. One indicator of the redistributive effect of the new process is that in 2011 the high schools that received smaller budget allocations were those that had been able to best take advantage of the previous system. What takes place is a learning process in which local education communities compare their situation, as it evolves, with that of others. More widely, the PB brings into the open facts and figures to which access had previously been restricted.

Can it work in Canada?

Can school boards in Canada learn from the Poitou-Charentes PB experience, especially when it comes to addressing the low level of knowledge of and interest in school board politics? The level of participation in the budgeting process in the Poitou-Charentes regional education community is 13 per cent – approximately 15,000 people. This is well over the 3,000 who participate in Poitou-Charentes high school representative bodies – bodies at the school level that are similar to parents’ committees in Quebec schools. Moreover, the Poitou-Charentes PB has a much higher level of participation than many other PBs. Clearly, the fact that the region adopted the principle of very quickly implementing accepted proposals in the critical early years had a significant positive effect.

A key dimension related to the level of participation is the transparency of the process, as the relevant information is made public. This is something we do poorly in Quebec. In Poitou-Charentes, participatory budgeting has transformed the management of high schools. Transparency has put an end to the covert lobbying that skewed investment decisions. More generally, the PB process has given everyone insights into the management of education in the region. This means that even regional authorities now have information that they could not obtain before.

Rather than having a top-down approach where professional public servants decide what’s good for the high school community, a portion of the regional investment is decided via a bottom-up approach. Though this portion is only 10 per cent of the overall budget, it makes the entire process more visible and generates wider popular interest. The discussion brings to light existing conditions in the schools and identifies potential avenues of addressing them, which receive the attention of regional authorities even in cases where the PB process itself cannot respond to them. The regional authorities – like all participants in the process – gain a new picture of the state of the high school facilities and the disparities among them. The new 2011 PB process brings these inequities to the table.

For each local education community, the two discussion meetings provide an arena for learning more about the experience and needs of each community member, and thus for seeing the lycée from a new perspective. In addition, by choosing from a list of proposals, the local education community gains experience in identifying and developing cheap and innovative solutions, and learns how the regional decision-making and budget allocation processes work.

It is also worth noting in this regard that the region is a new local level of government created in France during the 1980s, so it is not easy for citizens to clearly grasp its role. This is similar to the situation of school boards in Quebec, if not quite as bad. Hence an added benefit of the PB process in Poitou-Charentes is that it enhances understanding of the region’s role among the participants as well as those with whom they share their experience.

It is true, as some critics state, that the investment decisions made by the local education community are small and relatively insignificant. This, however, misses the point about the democratic value of a decision to invest in, say, the setting up of a new computer room, or a trip to discover Scotland. Even if the amount of money involved is small, such decisions made under the PB process help improve day-to-day conditions for learning and working in the schools and bolster public support for education. Moreover, as a democratic process, public budgeting makes high school politics meaningful. Citizens have a better understanding of what is at stake in regional decisions about high school education.

The process is a dynamic one involving not only participants but also actors involved in traditional administrative roles. As actors gain information by participating in the process, they see new opportunities arising from involvement and modify their proposals and strategies for the next PB year. In sum, PB in Poitou-Charentes opens up new space for choices, indeed a new political space, in a public policy area that is typically ignored by all but a few.

Revitalizing Canadian school boards

Rather than abolishing our school boards, Canadians could revitalize them through the incorporation of participatory budgeting. PB could create an opportunity for citizens to learn more about the governance of education at the local level. The transparency effect and the new information generated by the PB process could also lead to a series of administrative changes that would make school boards accountable to the local education community. If successful, the annual deliberations under PB would transform the low-information context by progressively fostering a common understanding of local educational challenges. New debates will emerge, and some longstanding issues will enter public discussion. School boards will be called on by an empowered local education community to show how they contribute to resolving these issues.

Bringing participatory budgeting to Canadian schools will entail adapting the process to the different Canadian school board systems. Yet the PB experience suggests that this should not be very difficult. Since its creation in Porto Alegre in 1989, PB has been adapted to numerous and diverse situations. And the experience of Poitou-Charentes PB shows concretely that the school board is a promising arena for its application. There is every reason to believe that the investment of time and resources in this innovative participatory mechanism could reap positive benefits both for education and for democracy in this country.


1 See Brian Tanguay, “Coalition Avenir Québec: Another New Party is Poised to Break the Mould of Quebec Politics – or is it?”, elsewhere in this issue of Inroads.

2 This section and the following one are based on the work of Alice Mazeaud, who is the leading French researcher on the Poitou-Charentes PB.

3 See here