Government reforms may expand role of charter schools in Alberta

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Appeared in the Edmonton Sun, June 24, 2020
Government reforms may expand role of charter schools in Alberta

In a 2018 study, Fraser Institute analysts published a detailed overview of the state of Alberta’s K-12 education system and proposed a number of possible ideas for policy reform, including expanding the role of charter schools in the province.

Alberta is the only province in Canada that allows charter schools—fully-funded non-profit schools that have more autonomy than regular public schools. They can offer different types of programming or teaching techniques tailored to specific learning styles, and are exempt from many of the regulations that make it harder for regular public schools to experiment and innovate.

The 2018 study recommended, among other things, removing the “cap” that limits the number of charter schools in the province while also removing administrative barriers that make it more difficult to open charter schools.

Last year, the Kenney government removed the cap. And last week, it announced plans to remove the administrative barriers, which required an individual or group wishing to gain approval for a new charter school to first provide the local school board with an opportunity to establish an alternative program of its own instead, to meet the stated need the proposed charter school intended to fill. This rule gave school boards significant discretion to reject applications for new charter schools.

But in the future, anyone wishing to open a charter school will be able to apply directly to Alberta’s minister of education (who will inform the school board), and the minister’s office will oversee the application process.

This reform may lead to an increase in the number of charter school applications. It also removes the possibility that any school board—unwelcoming to competition—could create high barriers to prevent the creation of new charter schools. And Alberta families are increasingly choosing charter schools for their children. Between 2000/01 and 2014/15, enrolment at charter schools rose from 2,558 to 9,131—an increase of 257 per cent. As a share of total K-12 enrolment, the number of charter school students increased from 0.4 per cent to 1.4 per cent. And several charter schools have reported long waitlists.

All told, the Kenney government education reforms have the potential to significantly strengthen and diversify Alberta’s public-school system, which is good news for supporters of a more diverse school system and proponents of increased parental choice in education. It’s even better news for students who well be better served in a different educational environment more tailored to their specific learning needs or interests.