Yukonomist: School competition ramps up in the Yukon

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It’s common to see an upstart automaker trying to grab share from established players with bold advertising, like Volkswagen did when it broke into the North American market in the 1960s with its iconoclastic Beetle ads. Or when restaurant upstart Wendy’s went after the fast-food behemoths with its “Where’s the Beef?” campaign.

But you don’t tend to see a smaller Yukon public school launching an ad campaign to grab market share from the school down the street.

Now Mercier, the newly opened francophone high school, has jumped into the market with a bold advertising message: “The best option for bilingualism.”

If they succeed in gaining market share, it will be at the expense of the school across the parking lot. That’s F.H. Collins and its 249 French immersion students in Grades 8 to 12. Mercier currently has 60 students in that age group.

As much as it pains me as an F.H. Collins grad to admit it, Mercier has the buzz in its favour these days. Check out the CBC North Facebook video tour, including the new gym, soundbooth for student podcasts and radio broadcasts, state-of-the-art science labs and performing arts theatre with 200 seats. And the buzz is backed up with a slick new website, telling prospective students about bonus features such as the Bistro Bonne Bouffe and how each student gets their own Macbook laptop in Grade 8.

Economists on the free-market side of the profession have been encouraging “school choice” for decades. In countries such as Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States, this has resulted in a wide range of programs such as charter schools and voucher programs. Other economists doubt whether the data backs up the claims that such programs improve performance. The Economist magazine summed up the debate by citing a respected Stanford University study, which found limited evidence of improved performance in the United States.

The Yukon doesn’t have an official school-choice policy. But in practice, students and parents in Whitehorse have a wide range of choices, supported by an extensive city-wide school bus system. There are non-Catholic students at the Catholic high school. There are students who do not have constitutional rights to a francophone education at Mercier. There are Riverdale students attending high school in Porter Creek. And students from all over Whitehorse attend French immersion at F.H. Collins. Ditto for the 145 high-school students at the Individual Learning Centre in the old Canadian Tire Building on Fourth Avenue.

If you count the English and French streams separately at F.H. Collins, the city’s 1788 high schoolers have six programs to choose from if they can navigate each program’s different admission criteria.

Mercier’s construction comes after many years of litigation over francophone education rights in the Yukon. The francophone school board won a case in 2011, then lost the appeal. In 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada sent the case back to lower courts to be retried.

Instead of going back to court, both parties collaborated on an agreement including the new school. “The settlement of this case is a very positive achievement. Our government worked with the Commission scolaire francophone du Yukon to make important changes for French First Language education in Yukon,” said Tracy-Anne McPhee, Minister of Education.

It’s good that the Yukon government is willing to spend big on education. With Mercier, it has set itself a high bar for new school construction and programming. I am sure parents in Burwash Landing are watching that CBC North video tour of Mercier as the planning for their new school continues.

Now the question is what the Yukon government plans for other schools, especially in digital skills. Not only is online learning going to stay important even after the pandemic, but in today’s society digital skills are critical for everyone from artists to heavy equipment mechanics to small business owners. What is the plan to beef up digital learning at the other high schools, such as ensuring all students have their own laptops or access to digital learning tools such as coding labs or Mercier’s podcast recording studio?

Mercier also sets a new, higher bar for broader education programming. First Nations educators, for example, will have powerful arguments if they go to the Yukon government to suggest enhanced programs. The Department of Education’s annual report for 2019 shows that First Nations graduation rates have improved significantly in recent years (although there was a change in the graduation process during that period). But in 2018-19 there was still a gap. Only 79 percent of First Nations students graduated, while 86 percent of non-First Nations students did.

In a world where education keeps getting more important, this gap is troubling.

Of course, there is much more to education than the building it happens in. In fact, the building, however flashy, is probably the least important aspect compared to the teachers and programs.

Interestingly, one thing the Mercier advertising campaign does not include are any facts showing that its students achieve better educational results. That’s fair enough. Most car ads focus on brand and style rather than fuel economy or safety statistics.

But with a car you can go get an independent review at Consumer Reports. The Yukon government spent more than $200 million on education this fiscal year, but students and parents don’t have an independent quality assessor like the Swedish Schools Inspectorate to help them make their choices.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.

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