LaGrange unveils changes to spur more charter schools, unfunded homeschooling option
Bill 15, the Choice in Education Act, was introduced in the legislature on Thursday
Alberta's education minister, Adriana LaGrange, says she's making good on an election promise to safeguard parent choice in education.
On Thursday afternoon, LaGrange introduced Bill 15, the Choice in Education Act.
She said this strengthens the idea that parents have the right to choose the type of education their children receive, through amendments to the Education Act.
Premier Jason Kenney said this proposed legislation is important because there continues to be special interest groups and political parties in Alberta who "undermine" this right.
"This legislation won't let them do so in the future," he said.
"This legislation enshrines the belief of Albertans in freedom, diversity, pluralism and choice as well as parental responsibility. Because we believe that parents know better than politicians or bureaucrats about what's in the best interests of their kids."
LaGrange said that when she was in "election mode," something she heard at doors across the province was that parents really valued the choices that they had in Alberta, and they wanted it to be something that was highlighted.
"That's how it became a platform commitment that we would be bringing forth a piece of legislation that would strengthen that."
Among the proposed changes, Bill 15 would amend the home education programs section of the Education Act, allowing for "unsupervised notification-only, non-funded home education program," meaning those choosing that option would no longer need to be supervised by an Alberta school board.
Parents who pick this option would have to notify the ministry annually of their intention to home school their kids, and they would have to submit an education plan that shows the ministry that the student would have the opportunity to achieve appropriate learning outcomes.
"We heard very loudly from that community that they wanted an option that was unsupervised, notification only, non-funded home education programs," she said.
But LaGrange said that doesn't mean they get a carte blanche.
"[The plan] is not there to be approved, but on the other hand, we would also have that dialogue with the parents to ensure proper oversight and the proper outcomes would be looked at," she said.
The minister said at home school programs don't necessarily all adhere to the Alberta Education guide or program of studies, but if they were adhering to the Alberta program of studies, then they would have to follow all of the required course content material as well as the examinations for those particular programs.
"There are home school parents and authorities that choose other programs from other areas, and then they have different outcomes as well as different assessments that they follow," said LaGrange.
She said that when parents choose not to follow the Alberta program of studies, they are made aware that their children will not receive an Alberta diploma.
Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teachers' Association, said this is a concern. He said home education should remain subject to accountability and oversight provided by public boards or private operators.
"Unsupervised home education should be a concern to all Albertans," he said. "A child's right to a quality education must not be sacrificed in the name of parental choice."
Charter schools applications
The bill also proposes changes to how charter schools can be established.
Current laws say that those wishing to establish a charter school have to go to the school board in the area they want the school to be in and request that the board establish an alternative program before considering the charter application.
Under the proposed changes, those wishing to establish a charter school would go directly to the minister.
It would then be up to the education ministry to reach out to all school divisions in that area and ensure that proper consultation takes place, to find out if a program similar to the proposal is already in place, has been considered or is waiting to be considered by the public school division.
"It takes a little bit of the angst out of the situation in terms of individuals going to the actual boards themselves and having conversations about it, whereas the department can do this and it eliminates one of the steps," said LaGrange.
Despite not one application for a charter school since Kenney took office, he said his hope is that these changes encourage more people to consider establishing charter schools to meet public demand.
"The waiting list for charter schools is unacceptably long. Last I heard, there were 14,000 students provincewide waiting for a position in a charter school," he said.
He said that since the creation of charter schools in Alberta in the mid-1990s, there's been a statutory requirement that they take kids from all backgrounds.
"It's not like independent schools, though — there's not a screening process. They are inclusive schools and there are children from all different social and economic backgrounds who attend charter schools, which have great outcomes. And so that's exactly why we hope to see a growing number of charter schools to respond to the demand that exists."
'Valued and integral'
In addition to these changes, there are also a number of smaller changes, including two additions to the preamble — the introductory part of the statute.
The first would add a new whereas statement to the act: "whereas parents have the a priori right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children" — which is also the language used in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The second addition recognizes all of Alberta's current choices in education as "valued and as integral" in providing choice in education to students and parents.
Included on this list are public schools, separate schools, Francophone schools, private schools, charter schools, early childhood services programs and home education programs.
No changes to private school funding
A similar new statement in the bill would recognize private schools as "being important in providing parents and students with choice in education."
"Private or independent schools have played a very important role in choice for parents in this province and I do believe that they felt that they were not valued but threatened under the previous government," said LaGrange.
Michael Van Pelt, president and CEO of Cardus — a Canadian faith-based, public-policy think tank — said this is an important move.
"If COVID did something, it showed us that we need flexibility in educational formats and educational approaches, and the bill does that, too," he said. "I think there's lots more work to do. But we're quite satisfied with those shifts, definitely."
In 2018, Cardus produced Better is Possible, a report that found increased independent school enrolment in Alberta would help spur public school improvement and accountability.
LaGrange said the proposed changes would not lead to any financial gain for independent schools, and that their funding formula would remain the same.
"They still only receive 70 per cent funding and they do not receive any capital funding," she said.
"This is strictly true to give them the comfort and to reinforce what we heard from parents … that they value the choice and that they see independent schools as a very real choice that they want to make for their children."
Other administrative changes include amendments to the Education Act so it specifically references the ability to establish vocational charter schools. Another change would exclude charter school operators from being subject to the Board Procedures Regulation as they are actually considered societies or companies registered under the Companies Act.
The minister said Alberta Education engaged with several groups through in-person meetings and webinars to find out what they would like to see as part of the Choice in Education Act. Consultations included the education system partners, interest groups and students through the Summer Student Advisory Panel and the minister's Youth Council.
Alberta Education also held a month-long online public survey offered in English and French. It generated more than 50,000 complete responses.
The survey found that 61.6 per cent of those responding were satisfied with the amount of educational choice in Alberta, and 59.1 per cent were satisfied with the information available about school choice.
The minister said an additional 2,357 surveys arrived via email from people associated with Support Our Students Alberta (SOS), a public education advocacy interest group.
These completed surveys were "very similar," contained no demographic information, and answered two questions with the exact same answers, she said.
The ministry said it analyzed these surveys separately as it did not want to impact the demographic components of the overall analysis, as it's important to show how people experience education differently in Alberta.
"When you have a special interest group that wants to hijack the survey, I found that a little disconcerting," said LaGrange.
Barbara Silva with SOS said that she was disappointed by the minister's response to their survey submissions.
Silva said that every Albertan who submitted a response through the SOS website to LaGrange's survey had to identify their own email address, and had to have an individual IP address.
"So these were individual Albertans engaging in the process that she set forward facilitated by SOS Alberta — and she is absolutely discounting it," she said. "It's absolutely shocking, it's undemocratic and it's unbecoming of a minister."
LaGrange said she also found it strange that SOS had never reached out to her department for a meeting.
"Or to have a conversation," she said. "And I would welcome that opportunity."
But Silva said that's not how they operate.
"What we have learned is that our goal, and our power, and our advocacy is in educating individual Alberta citizens to advocate on their behalf together," she said. "We advocate for public in public. We already know through previous experience that ticking boxes by meeting off with politicians gets us nowhere."
Bill 15 will be debated and voted on in the coming weeks.