From Alternative Schools to School Choice in the Vancouver School District, 1960s to the Neoliberal Present


  • Jason Ellis University of British Columbia
  • Ee-Seul Yoon University of Manitoba


alternative programs, school choice, education market, educational inequality, neoliberal reforms, policy history


This article examines the transformation over time of alternative secondary school programs in Vancou- ver, British Columbia (BC). It approaches school choice from a historical standpoint, to make the point that today’s choice policies are neither entirely recent nor entirely neoliberal in origin. Instead, they are built on past precedent and policy flowing from the right and left of the spectrum. The article traces the alternative schools that first emerged in the 1960s, and the Vancouver school board’s subsequent absorption of them to offer new, alternative programs beyond its regular secondary school curriculum. Vancouver’s alternative secondary programs were soon organized into two distinctive types: (1) remedial rehabilitative alternatives, and (2) selective district specified alternatives. New policy, institutional changes, and philosophical changes in the education sector allowed both types of alternatives to exist, but over time encouraged district specified alternatives to thrive. The provincial School Amendment Act of 2002 represented a watershed for choice as we know it today. It opened attendance boundaries across BC and gave districts the tools to generate their own revenues. Freezing the per-pupil funding it provided to districts at the same time, the provincial government induced districts to compete with one another to recruit students domestically and internationally in order to secure revenue. District specified programs in Vancouver became a key to the district’s competitive ability. By elucidating some of this history of different alternative and choice programs, at the secondary level in Vancouver, this article adds considerable perspective to the current theoretical discussion about how neoliberal philosophy is changing choice in Canadian schools.