All provinces—not just Alberta—should allow charter schools

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Appeared in the Toronto Sun, June 8, 2022
All provinces—not just Alberta—should allow charter schools

Edmonton is getting a new school. STEM Collegiate Canada will open its doors this fall to students interested in science, technology, engineering and math. No doubt many people will assume that STEM Collegiate is an elite private school that charges thousands of dollars for tuition. But they would be wrong.

In fact, STEM Collegiate is an autonomous secondary public school, also known as a charter school. Charter schools are publicly funded and prohibited from charging tuition fees, but they don’t fall under the authority of the local school board, which is a defining characteristic. In addition, charter schools must remain non-sectarian and cannot turn students away if there’s space available.

If the popularity of other Alberta charter schools is any indication, STEM Collegiate will not find it hard to attract students. As a case in point, Foundations for the Future Charter Academy, a Calgary charter school with a back-to-basics focus, has more than 3,500 students spread throughout its seven campuses, with thousands more on its wait list.

However, charter schools are not just for families looking for a traditional academic education, they’re actually quite diverse and cater to a wide variety of learning needs and preferences including Indigenous teachings, alternative programming for at-risk youth, and immersion in the fine arts. Unfortunately, Alberta is the only Canadian province that allows charter schools. Parents in other provinces face a choice between a regular public school or an independent school. Although independent schools are often more affordable than many people realize, the prospect of paying tuition can discourage families with limited means from even exploring this option.

There are many reasons why other provinces should follow Alberta’s lead and allow for the creation of charter schools. Perhaps most obviously, charter schools increase the choices available to families, particularly those with limited means. While many families are satisfied with regular public schools, others want more specialized programming options. Because charter schools are unencumbered by school board bureaucracies, they can cater to the unique needs of the families they serve.

In the classroom, the results speak for themselves. Not only do charter schools outperform other types of schools on provincial achievement tests, research has shown that charter schools are particularly effective at improving the academic performance of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Simply put, anyone who wants to help students who often fall through the cracks should be an enthusiastic proponent of charter schools.

Charter legislation can even help small rural communities save their local schools from closure. That’s what happened in the tiny hamlet of Valhalla Centre near Grande Prairie, Alberta. When the public school board sought to close the hamlet’s only school, community members obtained charter status from the province. Today, Valhalla Community School is a thriving charter school that serves not just Valhalla Centre but also students from the surrounding area.

Imagine how many other rural communities across Canada could save their local schools if they had the ability to form charter schools. But again, this option remains available only to families who live in Alberta.

Finally, charter schools benefit teachers. By working in a charter school, teachers can expand their craft and have the freedom to explore new and innovative pedagogical techniques. And because teachers in Alberta charter schools are not members of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, they do not have to pay union dues nor worry about strikes or lockouts.

The benefits of charter schools are clear. They should be available everywhere, not just in Alberta.