In the early 1990s the Alberta government, led by Premier Ralph Klein and Education Minister Halver Jonson, introduced charter schools onto the education landscape under the auspices of providing greater parental choice and promoting competition between schools to force efficiencies and innovation in the public education system.
Charter schools were modeled after educational policy established the 1980s and ‘90s. As Prof. Stephen Crump of the University of Newcastle, Australia wrote in 1992, the philosophy was centered around “an idealized perception of schools as able to operate like a market-place, able to express practices of competition, choice diversity and market driven funding.”
The Progressive Conservative’s decision to implement charter schools was met with opposition by public education stakeholders, including the Alberta Teachers’ Association, because education budgets in the early 1990s were being slashed. From that perspective, it made little sense to have charter schools divert scarce resources from public education.
Critics also pointed out that charter school boards were not subject to the same democratic processes as public school boards because they were not elected by the general population. Also, charter schools, unlike public schools, didn’t have to accommodate the needs of all students, raising concerns about equity and access. Finally, the ATA protested that teachers in charter schools were not active Association members and did not have automatic access to rights under a collective agreement, nor were they subject to the Association’s discipline and conduct processes (this function resides with the teacher regulation branch of Alberta Education). Despite these objections, charter schools were established, albeit under strict conditions.
For many years, the conditions under which charter schools were regulated remained the same. For example, charter schools could only be run by not-for-profit societies, they were evaluated and either renewed or cancelled every five years, groups wishing to start a charter school had to apply to local school boards first, the charter had to be unique in its pedagogy or program offering, no more than 15 charter schools could be formed in Alberta, and charter schools could not own land or facilities. As time progressed, while some charter schools failed, many charter schools have become fixtures on the education landscape, and there has even been growth in the collaboration between charter schools and public education stakeholders.
In the past 10 years, Conservative governments have begun to loosen the legislation and regulations around charter schools. Prior to the changes made by the Choice in Education Act, the cap on the number of charter schools was lifted, land and facility ownership by charter schools was permitted, charter renewal periods were extended to a maximum of 15 years, and the list of who can establish a charter school has been expanded to include private companies. The Choice in Education Act changes the charter school legislation in two significant ways. First, those wishing to establish a charter school no longer have to apply to local boards first. Instead, they can apply directly to the education minister, Second, charter schools can now replicate the services of public schools if they are vocational in nature. When all the changes to the charter school legislation and regulation are viewed in their entirety, it becomes clearer that charter schools are being positioned as competitors to public education and for public funds.
In the latest iteration of legislative change, the Choice in Education Act, we see the creep toward the privatization of our public education system. The requirement of charter school organizers to collaborate and consult with public school boards before applying for a charter has been eliminated, cutting public school boards out of the process. They will no longer be able to assess whether the charter is offering a unique program, or whether they could offer the proposed program themselves.
Second, charter schools will be able to replicate the programs of public schools, specifically with respect to vocational schools. This is odd because many public school jurisdictions offer extensive vocational opportunities, including registered apprenticeship and co-op programs to explore career options, and partnerships with post-secondary institutions that allow students to earn credits towards post-secondary programs. Vocational programs are labour intensive and require investment in learning labs and equipment. It is difficult to see how a vocational charter program could succeed unless it received more money than charter schools currently receive. To be sure, this additional funding would not be provided to the public system.
In an era of austerity by the current government, it is difficult to see how the Choice in Education Act improves education in Alberta. Our public education system is recognized as a top-performing jurisdiction worldwide. Ninety-three per cent of parents choose public education. If anything, this is where the government should concentrate its efforts.
Lisa Everitt is a researcher in the ATA’s Government program area.