The definition of a charter school varies according to the province, state or country in which the school is established. However, some common elements apply. Charter schools are independently operated schools that hold individual charters, or agreements, that allow them to receive full public funding. These charters are viewed as performance contracts between each school and the approving authority.
As part of Alberta's public education system, Alberta's charter schools must
- be nonsectarian and open to all students who can benefit from the program offered,
- charge no tuition fees,
- employ certificated teachers,
- be funded at a level comparable to other public schools,
- follow the charter agreement and be accountable to Alberta Learning, and
- follow guidelines for provincial achievement tests, provincial Grade 12 diploma examinations and any other tests prescribed by the minister of learning.
Supporters believe that charter schools
- provide a higher level of accountability and focus on "customer satisfaction,"
- allow greater parental involvement in the education process,
- are the most effective way to deliver specialized programs and ensure educational choice, and
- encourage excellence by promoting innovative teaching practices.
Critics believe that
- charter schools promote the segregation of children and create social fragmentation;
- charter schools have not actually demonstrated any ability to increase academic achievement, nor have they led to the development or implementation of innovative teaching practices; and
- public schools currently offer a wide range of alternative programs that respond to the needs of students within an inclusive setting.
A Closer Look
Internationally, charter schools have been operating since 1988. In Great Britain, New Zealand and the United States, where charter schools have been in place longer than in Canada, the establishment of charter schools has meant that neighbourhood schools are left with less funding to educate higher-risk, harder-to-teach, higher-cost students. By encouraging the formation of charter schools, governments divert funding away from the public education system. Establishing charter schools allows governments to cater to the demands of narrowly focused, highly vocal, special interest groups. In the end, charter schools provide governments with an excuse to avoid implementing meaningful reforms that would enhance the quality of learning for the broader community.
As education writer Murray Dobbin says, "To suggest that there is no choice in the public education system, that education is worse than it used to be, that we cannot compete globally, and that our students cannot read is a myth refuted by study after study." Alberta's public education system offers high-quality education, choices for students, progressive change and improvements, and parental and community input.
Bosetti, L., et al. Canadian Charter Schools at the Crossroads. Kelowna, B.C.: Society for the Advancement of Excellence in Education, 2000.
Bracey, G. "Charter Schools." Education Policy Project. Centre for Education Research, Analysis, and Innovation, October 12, 2000. Available online at www.uwm.edu/Dept/CERAI/documents/archives/00/cerai-00-26.html .
Canadian Teachers' Federation, "Behind the Charter School Myths," August 7, 2001. www.ctf-fce.ca/E/what/ni/charter/behind.htm .
National Education Association, "Charter Schools Overview," March 3, 2000. www.nea.org/issues/charter/ .
Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, www.osstf.on.ca /. Enter "charter schools" in the search field.
Parents are increasingly concerned about the role education will play in securing the future they want for their children. Many now expect the education system to offer students an ever-growing selection of publicly funded schools, programs and options. With taxpayer dollars following the student, in some communities the exercise of choice is beginning to create a competitive market for education services, with all the advantages and dangers that this entails.
In Alberta in the late 1970s, some school jurisdictions adopted open boundaries. In the late '80s, the provincial government amended the School Act to allow school boards to establish alternative education programs specializing in language, culture, religion, subject or teaching philosophy. In the 1996/97 school year, the Alberta government removed attendance boundaries in all school jurisdictions.
Supporters of expanding school choice believe that
- parents and students have the legitimate right to choose their children's schools;
- parents should be able to select for their children educational options in curriculum, instruction and philosophical contexts;
- educational choice is best promoted by having schools compete to attract students; and
- market forces will "discipline" schools and encourage excellence.
Those who are concerned about expanding school choice believe that
- increasing educational choice leads to increased segregation of students by race, social class and cultural background;
- there is no evidence that competitive environments improve learning or lead to innovation and diversity in school programming;
- school choice tends to favour the most wealthy and advantaged people in our society and fragments public education by creating have and have-not schools and programs; and
- a broad range of choice already exists within the public education system, both within jurisdictions and within schools.
A Closer Look
Some people regard education as a market commodity and students and their parents as consumers of that commodity. However, not all consumers are equal: some have more social and economic resources and hence will have greater influence over which programs will be made available. Our public education system has an important role to play in bringing together children from a wide variety of backgrounds to share a common learning experience. Taken to extremes, educational choice fragments public education and, over the long run, could undermine the unity and cohesion of our community.
Public education has responded effectively to the emerging needs of students and society. Since the mid 1990s there has been a rapid increase in the number of publicly funded educational choices in Alberta. Students may attend schools offering "Copernican timetables," four-day school weeks, year-round schooling, as well as enhanced programs in science, math, sports, fine arts, languages and a wide variety of religions. Access to charter, online, storefront and outreach schools adds to the range of available choices. In its public and separate schools, Alberta's public education system already offers a wide variety of educational choices. Instead of seeking to further expand the range of education choice, Alberta should concentrate on its core responsibility-building an equitable system of public education for all children.
Robertson, H.-j. No More Teachers, No More Books: The Commercialization of Canada's Schools. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1998.
Froese-Germain, B. "What We Know About School Choice." Education Canada 38, no. 3 (Fall 1998): 22-25.
British Columbia Teachers' Federation. "Issues in School Choice ." August 7, 2001.
Public Funding of Private Schools
Though private schools are nothing new, the privatization of public schools is a recent development that seems to be spreading across North America. Government decisions to provide public funds to private schools, give parents vouchers redeemable at public or private schools and make fees paid to private schools tax deductible are all examples of the privatization of public education.
One purpose of all these moves to privatize is to reduce government expenditure on public education. Generally, it costs taxpayers less to educate students in a private setting because parents cover much of the cost themselves. As well, privatization of public education is philosophically attractive to those who believe that a private enterprise system is more efficient and produces superior results in all circumstances.
Supporters of public funding for private education believe that
- privatized schools are more streamlined, more effective and less costly;
- privatization increases school choice, and competition between schools fosters excellence;
- privatization can reduce government spending on education; and
- privatization promotes increased accountability and gives parents more control over what happens in schools.
Critics believe that
- privatizing education primarily benefits a privileged few and contributes to social and economic inequality;
- there is no evidence that privatization can educate children more cheaply, efficiently or effectively;
- privatization is simply a justification for dismantling public education with no concern for the impact on children or their learning; and
- privatization of public education is driven by governments wanting to spend less taxpayer money.
A Closer Look
Advocates of privatization believe that free-market competition is the only way to improve education. They claim that free-market competition, by its very nature, eliminates inefficiency and ensures customer satisfaction.
However, learning and providing a high-quality education for all children are much more complex tasks than the marketplace can understand or accommodate. The concepts of "profit," "lowest-cost production," "selective sourcing" and "standardization" have a place in business, but not in education.
The real danger posed by privatization is that it makes quality education affordable to some but not to others and so diminishes the unity and cohesion of society. The mandate of a public education system is to be open to all children, fully funded by citizens and accountable to society as a whole.
Ascher, C., N. Fruchter and R. Berne. Hard Lessons. New York: Twentieth Century Fund Press, 1996.
Shaker, E. "Privatizing Schools: Democratic Choice or Market Demand." Education Monitor 3, no.1 (Winter 1999).
Center for Education Research, Analysis, and Innovation. "Calculating the Benefits and Costs of For-Profit Public Education. " April 24, 2001.