Intergovernmental Cooperation between Cantonal and Municipal Authorities: The Issue of Primary Education in the Canton of Berne

Erika Schläppi, Ximpulse GmbH

Relevance of the Practice

The allocation of powers, tasks and responsibilities for services and corresponding funding systems are key features of effective local governance. In practice, competences and tasks can rarely be allocated exclusively to one level of government in a way that the responsible authorities can decide on the tasks without any involvement of the other levels. The legal frameworks, tasks and competences are closely interwoven. While the de-bundling of tasks makes politically sense particularly for ensuring clear accountability lines, the idea of a clear-cut separation of powers and tasks between cantonal and municipal authorities must remain an illusion. In the reality of the Canton of Berne, shared responsibilities between the cantonal and municipal authorities are rather the rule than the exception, and this implies complex systems of vertical cooperation. The case of primary education (as an issue of competence that is shared between all levels of Swiss governance) illustrates this need for vertical and horizontal cooperation. This practice example shows how this is organized in the Canton of Berne and its rural and urban municipalities.

Description of the Practice

The allocation of powers and tasks between cantons and the Confederation follows Article 3 of the Federal Constitution: The cantons have original or residual powers, and the Confederation has only powers that are explicitly attributed to it by the Constitution (Article 42). General principles for the allocation of tasks are enshrined in Article 43 of the Federal Constitution: The Confederation only undertakes tasks that the cantons are unable to perform or which require uniform regulation by the Confederation (principle of subsidiarity). The collective body that bears the costs of a public service may decide on the nature of that service. This principle, called ‘financial equivalence’, is particularly important in the Swiss federal system where the three State levels (including municipalities) have their own taxing powers and are, in principle, responsible for covering the costs of the services within their competence with their own means. Universally provided services must be made available to every person in a comparable manner. Finally, State tasks must be fulfilled economically and in accordance with demand (efficiency and responsiveness). Although the Cantonal Constitution of Berne does not mention these principles enshrined in the Federal Constitution, they are also guiding the allocation of tasks between the canton and the Bernese municipalities and the management of municipal services. Explicitly, the Cantonal Constitution only mentions that the municipalities are fulfilling the tasks that are attributed to them by the canton and the Confederation (Article 112), and that the cantonal law grants the municipalities as much freedom of action as possible (Article 109(2)).

While vocational education and higher education are shared responsibilities between the cantons and the Confederation, primary school education is a cantonal competence, however with federal standards to be respected (Article 62 of the Federal Constitution). The cantons must ensure the provision of an adequate basic education that is available to all children. Basic education is mandatory and is managed or supervised by the state. Primary education at state schools is free of charge. Where harmonization of school education (on specific topics) is not achieved by means of coordination among cantons, the Confederation shall issue regulations to achieve such harmonization.

Within this federal framework, in the Canton of Berne, primary schools are a shared responsibility of the canton and the municipalities. The Primary School Act refers to the obligatory schooling of children from 5 to 16 years of age. It provides a complex intergovernmental set-up of responsibilities between cantonal and municipal authorities, with no formal differentiation between urban and rural areas. The main features are set out as follows.

The cantonal authorities define contents, objectives and general conditions for primary schools and ensure a comparable offer for all municipalities (Article 50). They set the principles and standards of primary education (objectives, duration, curriculum, rights of students and parents, forms of education, teaching material, etc.).

The municipalities are ‘in charge’ of the primary schools. Several municipalities can join forces in a municipal association to provide school services jointly, or municipalities contract another municipality to deliver school services for them. They are to ensure that every child can attend primary school (Article 5). The municipalities are responsible for concretizing the contents and objectives of the primary public school, implementing the services, evaluating the results and reporting to the canton (Articles 50-51).

Municipalities are responsible for the construction, maintenance and operational management of school facilities and their equipment, according to cantonal regulations (Article 48). Municipalities decide on the creation and abolition of school classes and the introduction of facultative classes, with the approval of the cantonal authorities who can provide general regulations on these issues (Article 47).

At municipal level, the schools are organizational units within the municipal administration. They are usually overseen by a school board and managed by a school directorate (Article 23) responsible for pedagogic guidance and administrative management. School boards are responsible for ensuring school attendance of all children, anchoring the school in the municipality, providing strategic guidance and fulfilling other tasks, particularly in the context of teachers’ employment (Article 35).

The canton is responsible for quality assurance and gives quality feedback to the municipalities. Regional school inspectors are responsible for advice to municipal authorities as well as cantonal oversight (Article 52). The cantonal authorities have a duty to communicate with and inform municipalities and public schools about trends and developments in school organization as well as cantonal support offers (Article 54).

The teachers’ personnel costs are jointly financed in the ratio of 70 per cent (canton) to 30 per cent (municipalities) (Article 24 Law on the Equalization of Finances and Burdens FILAG, regulating vertical and horizontal equalization). Infrastructure and operating costs are borne by each municipality. It is estimated that the total costs of the primary school are funded in a ratio of approximately 50 per cent (canton) to 50 per cent (municipalities), in urban as well as rural areas. However, geographical and socio-demographic factors tend to make burdens higher for rural and smaller municipalities, since the rate of children per resident is higher in rural areas, and class sizes tend to be smaller, resulting in higher numbers of teachers per students. In addition, it is more difficult for small rural schools and their teachers to respond to the increasing technical standards (for example, on digitalization). On the other hand, urban schools are facing other challenges and costs, mainly due to the higher diversity of population which may result in a need for specific measures, e.g. for the speakers of foreign languages.

Financial equalization alleviates the financial impact on financially weak municipalities. The direct financial equalization system provides support to weak (rural) municipalities with low financial capacities and relatively high burdens, while the support is funded by financially strong municipalities, mostly urban or peri-urban. In addition, according to Article 24a of the cantonal Law on Equalization of Finances and Burdens, the canton provides additional support for municipalities that are facing specific costs for their primary schools. This additional contribution is depending on various factors such as the linguistic situation of the municipality, the topography, the settlement structures and the student/resident ratio.

Horizontal cooperation on primary schools is often practiced by rural municipalities with a low number of residents, challenged by the high-quality standards for schools and low municipal resources. In many cases, bigger municipalities that are considered to be regional centers offer school services also for surrounding municipalities, particularly for upper school grades. Inter-municipal cooperation takes place in the form of (legally independent) associations of municipalities for providing school services jointly, or municipalities are simply contracted to provide services on behalf of other municipalities. In urban settings, municipalities are big and strong enough to organize their primary schools effectively and cost-efficiently, without any need for horizontal cooperation. 

To manage complex interactions around joint responsibilities in a constantly evolving context, vertical cooperation between cantonal authorities and municipalities are needed at various levels. The Covid-19 crisis has particularly shown that vertical cooperation processes are important to ensure that municipal interests are taken into account in assessing upcoming needs, formulating policies, arranging and re-arranging funding systems, developing practical guidance for schools and teachers, evaluating results as well as addressing related challenges. Extensive consultation practices of cantonal authorities, at political, financial as well as technical level, allow for taking into account various stakeholders’ views – among them the municipalities and their association – in all stages of processes, from the beginning to the end, when the cantonal authorities envisage the revision of laws and regulations, develop practical guidance or change the financial scheme. For example, the digitalization of public education is a topic that obviously involves the competences of cantonal and municipal authorities. Representatives of the municipalities and the Association of Bernese Municipalities are participating in the working groups and commissions dealing with the issue, from the beginning to the end of the informal and formal processes for developing strategies and guidance. Other examples include the debate around new teaching material for learning French – an issue intensively debated in and between the canton and the municipalities. Or in the extraordinary situation of Covid-19, the guidance for enhanced sanitary protection in public schools has been developed and communicated jointly.

Assessment of the Practice

The allocation of tasks and their funding as well as the ways of intergovernmental cooperation are a constant topical of political debate, the allocation of municipal competences is very dynamic and never finished. The complex set-up of responsibilities, tasks, funding structures, advice and oversight works well in the field of primary education, if and when the main communication and cooperation challenges are well addressed. The cantonal strategies and policies can be responsive to the realities on the ground if and as far as authorities know about the operational challenges that municipalities and schools are facing in urban, peri-urban and rural settings. A constant exchange of information, formal as well as informal communication processes vertically and horizontally (between municipalities) are needed.

The funding system works well overall but its aspiration to balance burdens and financial capacities of municipalities and respond to the principle of financial equivalence is ambitious and needs constant attention. If tasks are re-defined or re-distributed, or if demographic realities (including urban-rural trends related to specific burdens and financial capacities of municipalities) are changing, the funding system must be re-adapted. The general funding system of primary schooling does not differentiate between urban and rural municipalities. Both rural and urban municipalities are facing challenges that can heavily impact on the costs. While rural municipalities have a lower number of students as well as higher costs for quality services in less densely populated spaces, urban municipalities tend to have a more diverse population and may be required to offer additional support for students. The complex financial equalization system is addressing the specific burdens in various ways. Nevertheless, many small, rural and financially weak municipalities have engaged in cooperation schemes with other municipalities with a view to respond to the general quality standards for primary schools in a cost-efficient way.

The roles of cantonal and municipal stakeholders and the respective accountability lines must be understood by everyone. The distinction between steering and implementing, advising and supervising is not always clear-cut and needs constant communication and often, even re-negotiation. The scope and limits of cantonal oversight on municipal implementation is particularly challenging. For example, the cantonal authorities and the school inspectors tend, with their responsibility to regulate, advise and supervise, to get closely involved in operational and implementing responsibilities. This can blur accountability lines, since, within their legally enshrined tasks, the municipal authorities are accountable towards the municipal structures and not towards the cantonal department of Education and Culture.

A variety of spaces and processes exist for municipalities and the Association of Bernese Municipalities to contribute constructively to political, financial and technical decision-making on primary education at cantonal level. However, such constructive participation depends on the human resources and technical knowhow that can be made available at the level of the association – also balancing the variety of views among municipalities, urban and rural, small and big.

The possibilities to require a popular vote (referendum) for new or revised laws helps to build political pressure, also on behalf of municipal interests. Nevertheless, successful lobbying requires a lot of human resources and an extensive political network that can be activated by the municipalities. The fact that many members of the cantonal parliament are (or: were) municipal counsellors or mayors and know the municipal challenges from their own experience, helps lobbying cantonal decision-making to a large extent.

References to Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications

Legal Documents:

Constitution of the Swiss Confederation, SR 101

Constitution of the Canton of Berne (Verfassung des Kantons Bern (KV)), BSG 101.1

Primary School Act (Volksschulgesetz), BSG 432.210

Law on the Equalization of Finances and Burdens (Gesetz über den Finanz- und Lastenausgleich FILAG), BSG 631.1

Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications:

Canton of Berne, ‘Financial Equalization Scheme for Primary School’ (Kanton Bern, undated) <> Ladner A, ‘The Organization and Provision of Public Service‘ in Andreas Ladner and others (eds), Swiss Public Administration, Making the State Work Successfully (Palgrave Macmillan 2019)