Fraser Forum

All provinces—not just Alberta—should embrace charter schools

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All provinces—not just Alberta—should embrace charter schools

Mounting empirical research suggests that charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate autonomously from government, are an effective way to improve public education. There are currently few charter schools in Canada—Alberta is the only province that allows them, and the approximately 10,000 charter school students account for only about 1.4 per cent of the province’s school enrolment. The demand, however, is stronger than enrolment suggests. For every student enrolled in a charter school, an estimated two students are on the wait list.

Why? Because there’s strong evidence of their benefits. In Alberta, charter school students consistently outperform traditional public school students on provincial achievement tests by a wide margin—and despite lower per-student costs to taxpayers. Again, while there are relatively few charter schools in Canada, in the United States they’re much more prevalent and significantly more research has been done on their effects, with similarly positive results.

Standford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) recently published a major national study on charter schools. Based on data from 29 states, the District of Columbia and New York City, it concluded “the typical charter school student had reading and math gains that outpaced those of their peers in traditional public schools.” The learnings gains were significant and “particularly strong among Blacks and Hispanics and those living in poverty.”

A separate study published by Mathematica on the long-term impacts of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), the largest network of public charter schools in the U.S., found 39 per cent of students who attended a KIPP middle school and high school graduated from a four-year college program within five years of high school—about twice the proportion of students who attended neither a KIPP middle school nor high school (20 per cent).

Similarly to the CREDO study, the Mathematica study found the beneficiaries of the charter schools to be primarily disadvantaged students. From 2008 to 2012 (when the students in the study were in middle school), 95 per cent of KIPP network middle school students were Black or Hispanic, and 84 per cent received free or reduced-price lunch. “The best way to help disadvantaged kids,” said a Wall Street Journal editorial on the study, “is by giving them the choice of schools that provide a quality education and practical guidance for college and career.”

Yet more evidence on the benefits of charter schools comes from New York City where charter school enrollment is up nine per cent over the past three years despite an artificial enrollment cap by the state government and as the traditional public schools experience a mass exodus. The proficiency rates in mathematics and English are 46 per cent and 55 per cent respectively among charter school students, significantly better than in traditional public schools (38 per cent and 49 per cent). In New York, the data again show disproportionate gains made by low-income students.

What can we conclude from all this? Long-term trends in Canada show public school spending rising while test scores trend down, suggesting the benefits of expanding access to alternatives to traditional public schools are stronger than ever. The evidence from Alberta and the U.S. shows increasing access to charter schools is one way to improve education, particularly for disadvantaged students.

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