This past month, as over 600,000 Albertan school children returned to school, around 8,500 mostly Calgarian students were enrolled in charter schools. The latter number has increased little over the past several years, at a time when more and more countries around the world are seeing the benefits of such schools.
The basic concept is that the schools are publicly funded but operate independent of local school boards. They are able to take on a character defined in their charter that caters to children desiring a certain educational style.
Albertan charter schools specialise in music, serving gifted children, science, First Nations education, and single sex education, among other missions. Aside from their special character, these schools have additional flexibility in their staffing, how they use their funding, management, and curriculum.
The evidence that these schools are successful is becoming conclusive. After reporting mixed results for U.S. Charter schools in 2009, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) issued an update of their extensive studies, finding that “charter schools now advance the learning gains of their students more than traditional public schools in reading. [In math] learning gains are now similar to those of students in traditional public schools.”
Eric Hanushek, also from Stanford, recently published a study taking in test results of over one million students from 42 countries and found that in developed countries schools with better autonomy achieve better results for their students.
Here in Alberta, a study of scores in grades three, six, and nine published last month by the C.D. Howe Institute found a strong Charter School advantage, “The gap between charter schools and all other schools is large and consistent across all three grades …even with controls for observed student background, [it] would seem to merit further investigation.”
But other countries are already taking such cues and offering the charter choice to more children. In the U.S., 41 States now have charter school legislation and the number of students attending the schools has risen 80 per cent to 2.3 million over four years.
British Education Secretary Michael Gove is pulling no punches as he converts more than half of the country’s schools to charter style Academies. When criticised by members of the education ‘establishment’ he responds, “there are still a tiny minority of teachers who see themselves as part of The Blob and have enlisted as Enemies Of Promise.”
In Sweden research shows that children do better and teachers are happier at Free Schools, which were first allowed in 1992 and nearly one-in-six students now attend. Even tiny New Zealand is getting in on the act. The first Partnership Schools, as their version is called, will open this February.
Alberta’s approach to educational choice is starting to look like Japan’s economy did in the 1990s. Once formidable and still amongst the leaders, but worryingly stagnant. The number of charter schools remains miniscule in the context of the wider education system, as does the number of children attending them.
Why does Alberta, generally known for its ethos of school choice, lag this global trend in spite of international and local evidence that more charter schools would improve children’s performance?
It can’t be that there is no demand; existing schools have very long waiting lists, reportedly 7,000 long in one case. The problem is one of supply, and specifically the process for opening the schools and attaining buildings to house them.
In order to start a charter school, the would-be operators must approach the local school board with their business plan, and ask the school board to achieve the same objectives. The school board can choose to take the ideas for itself, or reject them out of hand. As one commentator has put it, it would be like GM giving Ford its blueprints and only being given permission to build the new design if Ford didn’t want to appropriate them.
Then there is the supply of buildings, which is again at the behest of the local school board. Not only does GM have to submit its plans to Ford, but ask it for factory space. For these reasons, new and expanding charter schools are rarer than hot Februaries in Saskatchewan. These constraints have kept Charter Schools as bit players in spite of mounting local and international evidence, but more importantly parental preferences. It is high time the provincial government eased restrictions on Charter Schools and put parents back in the drivers’ seat.
Garnett Genuis is the Executive Director of Parents for Choice in Education. He is a long-time political activist who has been a Parliament Hill and Prime Minister’s Office Staffer, the coordinator of a political training program through the Canadian Centre for Policy Studies, an editor at an internet news company, and a candidate for provincial public office. Before joining PCE, he was the Executive Director of Responsible Electricity Transmission for Albertans. In his day job, Garnett is the Vice-President of Abingdon Research.