In the spring of 1994, Alberta became the first (and to this date only) jurisdiction in Canada and one of the first jurisdictions in the world to introduce charter schools as a program of choice in its school system. Charter schools in Alberta were designed to deliver on a promise of offering innovative or enhanced education in a way that could be used to complement the public education system and incubate good ideas for introduction elsewhere.
While this all sounds very positive and constructive, I am mindful that the concept of charter schools was birthed out of neo-liberal ideology that seeks to enhance competition and privatization as a means to remove government from service delivery and ultimately shrink its role in society.
In Alberta, the scope and scale of charter schools have been relatively contained. Charter schools here have largely delivered on the promise while upholding their commitments, with only a few exceptions, to the stated characteristics of universal access, secularity, unique programming and a prohibition on tuition fees. In the United States, however, there is no doubt that charter schools have been used to undermine and attack the public education system.
It was within this context that I watched with interest as Education Minister David Eggen recently rejected two charter school applications in Calgary. Eggen rejected the applications of ReThink Charter Academy (for students with special needs) and the West Calgary Spanish Science School after he concluded that the proposals “did not significantly differ from what is currently offered by Calgary’s public and separate school boards.”
The previous government, in particular then Education Minister Jeff Johnson, sought to expand the role of charter schools in Alberta, but I wonder if this announcement signals a change of attitude or approach related to charters.
Eggen’s decision is a significant vote of confidence for public education in this province.
Judy Gray, superintendent of the proposed ReThink school, said in media reports that special needs students are a “completely underserved population” and that these “kids within the public system are falling through the cracks.”
Every public, separate and francophone school in Alberta is obligated to provide programming to support students with special needs. Eggen is saying that they are adequately accomplishing this objective to the extent that alternative charter schools for students with special needs are not necessary.
He is walking a fine line with this stance.
The Supreme Court of Canada in Moore v. British Columbia (2012) said that “adequate special education is not a dispensable luxury.” It forced the B.C. government to reimburse the Moore family for tuition spent to send son Jeffrey, who has dyslexia, to a special private school after the public board said it could not meet his special learning needs.
According to the court, Jeffrey was discriminated against because he was denied access to a customarily available service based on protected grounds. In the decision, Justice Rosalie Abella said, “for students with learning disabilities like Jeffrey’s, special education is not the service, it is the means by which those students get meaningful access to the general education service.”
If Eggen is to be successful in turning down the ReThink Charter school application, he has to be able to demonstrate that the special education available in public, separate and francophone schools adequately provides meaningful access to the general education service that is customarily available.
In my mind, “customarily available” means that students, regardless of their learning needs, should be included in our public education system and not segregated in charter schools. And so, I agree with Eggen that the quality provision of inclusive education in Alberta precludes the need for such a charter school, but he may need to do more to ensure that teachers and students have the required support.
The minister needs to look carefully at the recommendations of the Association’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Inclusive Education in Alberta Schools to ensure that our inclusive education system is achieving its promise.
I applaud Minister Eggen for voicing such confidence in our public education system, but in order to truly protect it, he will need to get to work on ensuring that inclusion works effectively in Alberta classrooms.❚
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