Alberta should foster greater growth of charter schools
Alberta is unique in Canada in that it’s the only province that allows charter schools. Despite being an increasingly popular choice for parents, the number of charter schools in the province remains low. To increase the number of charter schools, government must do more than simply increasing or removing the legislated maximum number of charters.
Charter schools are fully funded public schools that operate independently of local school boards. Charter schools are not allowed to charge tuition, may not be affiliated with a religion, and have a specialized or unique approach to education and learning.
Legislation to allow charter schools was enacted in 1994 and capped the number of charters at 15. There are currently 13 charter schools operating in the province on a total of 22 campuses. The majority of these schools are in Calgary, with a few schools in smaller centres. Despite comprising a small portion of the overall number of schools in the province, charter school enrolment has grown significantly.
Between 2000/01 and 2014/15, enrolment at charter schools increased from 2,558 students to 9,131—pan increase of 257.0 per cent. As a share of total enrolment in the province, charter school enrolment has grown from 0.4 per cent to 1.4 per cent over the same period.
But increased enrolment only tells part of the story. Several charter schools report extensive waitlists, demonstrating that these schools are highly sought by parents.
There’s good reason why parents are eager to get their children into these schools. A recent analysis of charter schools in Alberta found that they outperformed all other types of schools in the province on Provincial Achievement Tests (PATs) written in Grades 6 and 9. What’s more, a recent review of charter schools in the United States and Canada found that charter schools are particularly effective at improving student performance for students in “underserved” groups such as low-income students, ethnic minorities and those entering school with lower educational levels.
Given their success in improving student outcomes and the increased enrolment (and waitlists) at these schools, we would expect the number of charters to increase across the province—but this hasn’t happened. In fact, there has not been a new school approved in more than a decade. What’s more, the number of schools has always been lower than the legislated cap of 15. Again, for government to allow the expansion of charter schools across the province, it can’t simply raise the cap. Specifically, the manner in which charter schools are approved must be amended.
Currently, for a group to obtain approval for a new charter it must first approach the local school board, which has the opportunity to establish its own alternative program. Or the board may decide that it already offers a similar program, in which case the application will be denied. Once an application is rejected by the local board, the group must then appeal directly to the Minister of Education to obtain authorization for a new charter.
Neither the Ministry of Education nor the Association of Alberta Public Charter Schools maintain a record of how many charter school applications have been denied, but in 2016 Education Minister David Eggen rejected applications for two new charter schools. One was for a school geared towards students with learning disabilities, the other was a school focused on Spanish and science.
There are several reforms that should be considered to expand charter schools.
The requirement that new charter schools can only be established if the proposed program is not already offered by the local school board should be eliminated. There’s an obvious conflict of interest when local school boards are able to make these determinations when they have incentives to retain students within their systems.
A clear set of objective criteria should instead be established for the approval of a new charter, and automatic approval should be granted when all criteria are met. Applications should not be subject to the whims of either local school boards or the Minister of Education, and should instead be based on a transparent set of guidelines.
Finally, a mechanism should be established to allow public schools operated by school boards to convert to charter schools. In the United States, 44 of the 50 states (and the District of Columbia) currently allow charter schools—and of those 44, 39 (plus the District of Columbia) allow public schools to convert to charter schools. The exact process varies by state; however, the support of the majority of parents and teachers of the school is frequently required.
The ability of charter schools to expand parental educational choice and improve student performance, particularly for many at-risk student groups, means that the province should consider options to increase the number of charter schools.