Considering the success of charter schools in Alberta, it is surprising that no other province allows independent parent groups to form charter schools. A one-size-fits-all public school system has its limitations, particularly when parents would like to try something different.
Charter schools would be an excellent way to give parents more options and also promote educational diversity across Canada.
Alberta’s newly elected government wasted no time putting its stamp on education policy. Despite strong opposition from the provincial NDP, Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative government used its majority to pass Bill 8: The Education Amendment Act.
Most of the media coverage of the bill focused on the controversial new regulations regarding Gay-Straight Alliances in schools. However, lost in the controversy are other reforms which are also of great significance.
In particular, Bill 8 makes very substantial changes to charter school regulations. Charter schools first came to Alberta in 1994 when Ralph Klein’s Progressive Conservative government passed Bill 19 and allowed independent parent groups to apply for school charters. To date, Alberta is the only Canadian province with charter schools.
Charter schools are best described as autonomous public schools. While they do not operate under the authority of a school board, they are fully publicly funded and don’t charge tuition fees. Charter schools are also non-sectarian and cannot turn students away if there is space available. Currently, there are 13 charter schools in Alberta, and several of them operate multiple campuses.
While charter schools have grown in popularity, they face significant regulatory hurdles. Notably, the Klein government capped the total number of charter schools at 15 and limited the length of their first charter to five years. While charter schools can apply for an extension, there is no guarantee they will be granted.
The message these regulations sent to potential charter school applicants is clear—charter schools were allowed, but not fully welcomed.
Bill 8 removes both the cap on the number of charter schools in the province and the length of the initial charter. This brings Alberta in line with other jurisdictions, such as Sweden, Norway, and the United States, that allow charter schools to flourish.
In other words, the Alberta government is now rolling out the welcome mat for charter schools.
This is good news for Alberta students and parents. Judging by the long waiting lists at some schools, there is a huge demand for the education that charter schools provide. For example, Foundations for the Future Charter Academy (FFCA) in Calgary has approximately 3,300 students on seven campuses and more than 11,000 students on its waiting list.
Obviously, FFCA is doing something that resonates with many parents. My newly published book, “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning,”notes that FFCA uses largely traditional methodologies such as phonics for reading instruction, regular homework assignments, and lots of testing. It is well-known that traditional instructional practices, which are supported by research, tend to be popular with parents.
By lifting the cap on the number of charter schools permitted, more charter schools will come to provide a good education to those 11,000 students languishing on the FFCA wait list.
It is not just supporters of traditional education who gravitate toward charter schools. Several Alberta charter schools are more progressive in their educational approach. For example, Mother Earth’s Children’s Charter School in Stony Plain focuses on Indigenous teachings based on the medicine wheel, while Calgary Arts Academy provides students with an arts immersion program. The Boyle Street Education Centre in Calgary provides alternative programming that caters to at-risk youth in the 14 to 19 age group.
In one case, a charter school authority saved a community’s public school from closing. Community members in Valhalla Centre, a very small hamlet, banded together to purchase the school building from the school board and reconstituted it as a charter school. Since its opening in 2008, the Valhalla Community School has grown as it attracts increasingly more students from a larger geographical area. Imagine how many other small communities could save their schools if they could create charter schools to educate their children.
The academic results in Alberta charter schools have been promising. Last year, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies published Paige T. Macpherson’s report on charter schools titled An Untapped Potential for Educational Diversity. In it, Macpherson notes that charter schools consistently outperform other schools, including both public and independent schools, on provincial achievement tests.
While some might argue that charter schools succeed by skimming the “best” students from the public system, it is important to realize that charter schools cannot select the best and the brightest. Rather, they are required to accept students based on their order of application.
By rolling out the welcome mat for charter schools, the new Alberta government is taking an important step in expanding the educational choices available to students and parents. Other provinces would do well to learn from Alberta’s example.
Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of the newly released book, A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.
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Author: Michael Zwaagstra