A Little School Choice Goes a Long Way

Alberta calls the bluff of teachers unions
September 19, 2018 Updated: September 20, 2018

In a field as pivotal for the future as K-12 education, you could be forgiven for assuming teachers, their union representatives, and lawmakers are doing all they can to benefit the next generation via public education.

If only.

A notable exception—Alberta, Canada—proves the rule that healthy, effective innovation is all too often met with resistance from those with whom so many entrust their children’s future.

Charter schools—publicly funded and regulated but privately run—are a prominent case of low-hanging fruit for policymakers. Despite 20 years of undeniable success in Alberta, the province stands alone as the one that permits their existence.

In-depth documentation of the story comes in An Untapped Potential for Educational Diversity: Policy Lessons from Alberta Charter Schools. This 31-page overview came out at the end of August, published by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), a nonpartisan think tank based in Halifax.

The author, Paige MacPherson, holds a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Calgary and is Atlantic Canada’s new regional director of the Canadian Taxpayers Association. Even in the face of stifling regulatory barriers, she has found that Alberta’s charter schools “on average outperform all other types of schools, including independent schools that charge tuition” [emphasis mine].

MacPherson’s study looked at Progressive Achievement Test scores “for grades 6 and 9 for charter schools, independent (private) schools, traditional public schools, separate (Catholic) schools and Francophone schools, between the school years 1997/1998 and 2016/2017.… Traditional public schools tend to perform the worst on average.”

Parents have caught on and are increasingly opting for charter schools. Enrollment since the first charter school opened in 1995 has grown by more than 500 percent. There is a cap on how many charter schools can operate in the province, and impediments make starting one unduly difficult, so waiting lists are common in the Calgary area.

“Charter and Francophone schools enroll the smallest proportion of the student population, but they are the fastest growing,” the study found.

Innovation Pays Off

What sets charters apart from traditional public schools in Alberta? Very little, and nothing in the way of alleged exclusivity. They get tax funding, although less than their counterparts. They cannot turn away students, although some public schools can. They also must teach a government-approved curriculum and only hire provincially accredited teachers.

These schools have more leeway to manage resources and focus on extracurricular activities such as arts, sports, or science; that’s it. The slightest room to breathe, however, makes all the difference.

“Charter schools are subject to much of the same legislative framework as public schools, with some exceptions. They typically face fewer regulations than public schools,” the AIMS report explains.

Experience with charter schools south of the border suggests that parents and children can reap even greater rewards with wider room to innovate. Waiting for Superman, Davis Guggenheim’s 2010 film, brought the crisis of U.S. conventional education to a nationwide audience. He demonstrated the performance contrast through the eyes of parents participating in a dehumanizing charter-school lottery. Emotions ran high, since the parents knew what a difference the charter-school option could make.

In the United States, where charter school serve almost 3 million students of mostly low-income and minority backgrounds, they top high-school rankings year after year. The average U.S. charter school delivers more bang for the buck and has forced the public-school system to catch up.

Even though cost is not necessarily a deciding factor in education choices, it is a natural consideration for taxpayers. Perhaps that is why teacher unions are such ardent opponents: charter schools save the Alberta provincial government $3,300 for every student annually. “If 50 percent of Alberta’s 473,174 public-school students moved to charter schools, the savings would be over $1 billion per year,” MacPherson writes.

Why Nowhere Else in Canada?

There is no secret over what has kept the charter-school experiment limited to Alberta.

The AIMS study notes political ignorance combined with heavy lobbying: “Without a strong public understanding of charter schools, there is little political incentive for vote-seeking elected officials to encourage them.”

Teacher unions fear an erosion of their control and pose a barrier to and severe problem for innovation. To preserve the status quo, “In most Canadian provinces, teachers’ unions carry political influence and often spend money advertising during elections,” MacPherson explains.

For instance, in Nova Scotia, the teacher union is accustomed to taxpayer-funded benefits and stands in the way of any meaningful reform—including with strikes.

Some of the arguments from teacher unions are so laughable and self-serving they defy belief. The Alberta Teachers’ Association, for example, has warned the rest of the country that charter schools “eschew the one-size-fits-all approach of traditional public schools.”

Duh, that is the whole point!

Given such hostility towards creativity and the specialized needs of children, it’s no wonder parents want a way out. Uniformity not only promotes mediocrity, as evidenced by public schools’ standardized tests, it squashes children’s creativity and curiosity.

Perhaps as a sign of good things to come, Nova Scotia’s classical-liberal Atlantica Party has taken notice and is calling for charter-school inclusion. “This positive change requires little thought on behalf of Nova Scotia parents and taxpayers to recognize what this fix can do for our province,” the party recently said.

After two decades of proven success, the Albertan government should do what is best for the province’s children: expand and unleash the program’s full potential. Approval authority can no longer remain in the hands of local school boards, which have an interest in keeping the supply of alternatives low. There are only 13 approved charter schools, even though 15 slots are available amid rising demand.

The rest of Canada can and should emulate Alberta, for the sake of education and taxpayers. Unions will have to come to grips with reality, and their power-hungry lobbying is becoming ever more apparent as the evidence of their mediocrity is rising.

Fergus Hodgson is the founder and executive editor of Latin American intelligence publication Antigua Report. Daniel Duarte contributed to this article.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

RECOMMENDED