Why charter schools matter

January 19, 2010

By Shawna Ritchie
Policy Analyst
Canada West Foundation

Shawna Ritchie
Shawna Ritchie

CALGARY, AB, Jan. 19, 2010/ — Here are two interesting facts: 1) Alberta is the only Canadian province to incorporate charter schools into the public education system; and 2) Alberta students consistently outperform all other Canadian students across every educational measure. I’m not saying that there is a cause-effect relationship between these two facts. I am merely pointing out that they co-exist.

These points are particularly interesting at the moment. The Alberta charter school community will learn their fate in the spring when Minister of Education Dave Hancock reopens the School Act. Minister Hancock has completed a year-long public consultation on the future of education in Alberta, examining what can be done to make Alberta education better and what the role of charter schools should be in the public education system. 

Education key to prosperity

Why do charter schools in Alberta matter? They matter because education is the key to success and prosperity in the future. International education indicators show that although Canada currently ranks quite high in student achievement, we are failing to improve while countries like India and China are progressing rapidly. In an increasingly globalized and competitive world, it is imperative that Canadian education adequately equips students to compete. Canadian’s economic advantage isn’t in manufacturing or natural resources, it is in our ideas. If we fail to equip Canadian students to think as critically and creatively as possible, we forfeit our chances of future success. We also let down our children who deserve the best education we can give them.

The Alberta experiment with charter schools began in 1994 when legislation for their establishment was first created. Since then, charter schools have grown and now enroll more than 7,000 students. The schools are extremely innovative and focus on, for example, science, arts immersion, rural leadership and traditional education. Additionally, many charter schools cater to specific populations including at-risk youth, ESL students, girls, Aboriginal youth and gifted students.

Charter schools are held to a higher level of accountability than regular public schools and any charter school not achieving the objectives of their charter, or managing their school well, can be closed by the Minister of Education.  

Charter schools are autonomous public schools and all the same rules apply to them as any other public school. This means that they cannot discriminate in student enrollment, they must hire certified teachers, they cannot be religiously affiliated, they have to follow the provincial curriculum and they cannot charge tuition. Charter schools were established in Alberta in an effort to provide competition to the public school boards, therefore encouraging innovation and the development of alternative programming. It was also hoped they would become centres for educational research and development.

So far, charter schools have succeeded in providing choice in the educational system. Families can choose to attend a charter school instead of a regular public school and charter school programming has stimulated some of the larger school boards to offer alternative programming. They have also succeeded in providing enhanced learning outcomes to their students. Charter school students perform at an equivalent, or higher level, on provincial achievement examinations and, according to a government report, provide significantly more educational value to their students than equivalent public board schools.

Changes to the School Act

The goal that charter schools would be centres of innovation that could share their success with the rest of the system, however, has been largely unrealized. Charter school proponents hope the changes to the School Act will begin to remedy this by clarifying the position of charter schools in the educational community, changing legislation to relieve some of the burdens of the charter renewal process and providing funding directly to educational research.

Given that charter school students are outperforming other students in Alberta, and Alberta students are outperforming all the other students in the country, perhaps it is worth paying attention. And maybe, just maybe, charter schools that demonstrably encourage innovation, provide enhanced learning outcomes and increase choice in education provide a partial explanation for the success of Albertan students.  

Shawna Ritchie is a Policy Analyst with the Canada West Foundation. Her report on charter schools, Innovation in Action: An Examination of Charter Schools in Alberta, is available at no charge from the Canada West Foundation website (www.cwf.ca).

Channels: The Winnipeg Free Press, January 22, the Windsor Star, February 8, 2010

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