Charter schools have coexisted with private schools in Canada for over 15 years. Yet they remain a well kept secret. Outside of Alberta, you would never know that they existed, especially if you depended upon Canadian public education sources for your information about the school choices available to families.
Are Canada’s charter schools set for a comeback?
While North American charter schools may be modelled after private, independent schools, they are actually public schools. To be more specific, they are publicly-funded, autonomous schools which are formed to “provide innovative or enhanced education programs that improve the acquisition of student skills, attitudes, and knowledge in some measurable way.” (Alberta Education, 2010).
Since the premiere of the new documentary film Waiting for Superman, charter schools are becoming much better known. It has taken the educational world by storm and sent shock waves through the normally serene Ontario educational establishment.
Here in Canada the film has been greeted by our educational authorities with, for the most part, a stoney silence. Anyone who might suggest that it has any relevance to Canada is simply dismissed with the usual rationalizations. We have such a fine public school system, so the line goes, we have little to learn from the film.
Twenty years ago, a Canadian movement for charter schools stirred up quite a commotion. It was driven by concerned parents demanding more from public schools and looking for more parental choice within the system. Many were acquainted with Canadian private and independent schools, but lacked the means to enrol their children in schools charging tuition fees. Seeking higher quality public schools led them to become advocates for charters.
Since the early 1990s, the official reaction to charter schools has been apoplectic. When the Alberta government of Ralph Klein authorized Canada’s first charter schools, the core interests in Canadian education (school superintendents, education faculties, and teachers’ unions) closed ranks and successfully fended off charter schools everywhere else. Instead of fairly evaluating charters as a means of broadening school choice, public school authorities clicked into siege mentality mode, condemning the “privatizers” and casting aspersions on the motives of charter school advocates.
The first Canadian charter schools in Alberta were the result of the tireless campaigning of Dr. Joe Freedman, a fiercely determined radiologist from Red Deer, Alberta. Since their advent in March 1994, Alberta remains the only province to authorize charters. Today, Alberta continues to embrace “School Choice” in public education and to support 13 different charter schools. (www.education.alberta.ca)
Following the breakthrough in Alberta, education reform groups favouring “School Choice” mounted a campaign in Ontario and in Atlantic Canada. The Ontario Coalition for Education Reform, the Society for Quality Education, and the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies (AIMS) all embraced the cause. Inspired by Dr. Freedman and American advocates of charters, the groups held conferences and published pamphlets proclaiming Charter Schools “an idea whose time has come.”
The frenzied activity peaked in 1997 and then stalled when educational authorities closed ranks and out-flanked the proponents by embracing a domesticated version of student testing and accountability. The Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, normally an ally, undermined the whole effort by publishing a “Freedom Index” suggesting (erroneously) that Canada’s public system already had more educational choice than the United States.
In Alberta, the existing Charter Schools have survived, but still face surprisingly strong institutional resistance, fuelled by the teacher unions. A recent January 2010 Canada West Foundation report, “Innovation in Action: An Examination of Charter Schools in Alberta,” put it best: Alberta’s chartering legislation is a straight-jacket which amounts to “the equivalent of clipping a bird’s wings and then asking it to fly.” (www.cwf.ca)
“If Canada has a “school choice capital”, it is Calgary. Three of Greater Calgary’s top schools are Strathcona Tweedsmuir School, Rundle College, and Webber Academy, all catering to affluent and upper middle class families. The city also boasts six charter schools, enrolling 5,930 of the 7,161 students attending charter schools throughout Alberta. The number of students in Calgary charter schools has more than tripled over the past decade. Compared to the Calgary Public Board’s 99,680 students, the numbers remain small, but their evident success in improving student learning stands as a valuable lesson for other provinces.
Living as we do in a North American cultural universe, Waiting for Superman may just give charter schools a new lease on life here in Canada. Here is one “little Hollywood movie” that exposes ordinary citizens to the type of specialized, quality schools previously limited to parents who can afford such school options. If Canadians do embrace charter schools in greater numbers, public school standards may rise and so will competition for students.
[Dr. Paul W. Bennett is Director of Schoolhouse Consulting, Halifax, author of The Grammar School (2009), and online editor of EduBlog at www.schoolhouseconsulting.ca.]
– See more at: http://www.ourkids.net/blog/canada-charter-schools-5919/#sthash.ps6KWtH4.dpuf