Alberta offers more school choice than any other province

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Appeared in the Edmonton Sun, June 21, 2023
Alberta offers more school choice than any other province

In one sense, this schoolyear will end the way it began, with Alberta leading the way on school choice in Canada. That’s because compared to parents in the other nine provinces, Alberta parents have the most options.

For example, Alberta is one of only three provinces (along with Saskatchewan and Ontario) that operates separate school boards for Roman Catholic education in both official languages. This means parents who want a Catholic education for their children can access this option within the government system.

In addition, some Alberta public school boards have made choice a key part of their educational philosophy. Probably the best example is the Edmonton Public School Board, which has an open enrollment policy and allows students to attend schools outside their neighbourhood catchment area. The options include faith-based schools, Cogito schools, First Nations schools, arts schools and athletic schools.

This stands in stark contrast to most public school boards in the rest of the country where students typically have little choice but to attend their local neighbourhood school. If that school doesn’t meet their needs, the only way to enroll elsewhere is for their parents to move to a different neighbourhood. Obviously, this option isn’t feasible for most parents—particularly those with a lower income.

In Alberta, parents who want their children to attend non-government schools also have the option of independent schools, which operate outside the government system and usually have a distinct academic focus or religious orientation. While all provinces have independent schools, only five currently provide these schools with partial funding—and Alberta provides the highest amount per student.

However, it's also important to remember that when provinces fund independent schools, they do so based on enrollment. Thus, it’s more accurate to say that money follows the student, since independent schools only receive funds if parents choose to send their children there. Clearly, independent schools meet an important need for many families and should remain available as an option.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of Alberta’s education system is that it’s the only province that allows charter schools. Despite popular misperception, charter schools are not independent schools but rather autonomous, not-for-profit schools within the public system.

Charter schools have proven to be quite successful. Some charter schools, such as Foundations for the Future Charter Academy in Calgary, provide a traditional back-to-basics approach while others, such as Boyle Street Education Centre in Edmonton, focus on alternative programs targeting at-risk youth. With the Alberta government’s recent decision to lift the cap on charter schools, the number of these schools—and the number of students enrolled in them—will continue to grow.

Of course, not all students are enrolled in school. Parents in every province are legally entitled to educate their children at home, and a small but growing percentage are choosing to do just that. Significantly, Alberta is one of only three provinces (along with British Columbia and Saskatchewan) that offers funding for the direct cost of homeschooling. Alberta is also the province with the highest percentage (1.9 per cent) of students enrolled in homeschooling, thanks in part to provincial funding, which makes this choice more accessible for many families.

Clearly, Alberta is a province that values school choice. Not only are there plenty of options within the government school system, but the province also recognizes and supports parents who choose other options such as independent schools, charter schools and home schooling. This makes for a healthier educational environment for students and parents alike.

However, the Alberta government cannot afford to become complacent. Many politicians and advocates want to reduce the choices available to parents. Some advocacy groups want to defund independent schools while others remain implacably opposed to charter schools. Others would like to scrap the separate school system entirely.

Alberta is a beacon of school choice. Hopefully, the Alberta government recognizes the benefits of providing parents with more options and continues to protect its unique system.

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