Edmonton

Alberta charter schools to get new startup funds, construction dollars

Alberta’s charter schools are receiving a new injection of provincial funding that proponents of the system have long pushed for.

Charter schools anxious to make room for more students

Students at Edmonton's Suzuki Charter School practice an ensemble piece of music. Suzuki is one of 15 charter schools in the province. The provincial government has announced it is increasing funding for the schools and plans to give them more flexibility to expand. (Janet French/CBC News )

Alberta's charter schools are receiving a new injection of provincial funding that system proponents have long pushed for.

And an organization that advocates for the province's 15 charter schools says regulatory changes are coming that will make it easier for people to start and run a charter school.

"Public charter schools for a very long time felt like second-class citizens," Ron Koper, chair of the Association of Alberta Public Charter Schools (TAAPCS), said in an interview this week. "And it is wonderful to be able to say that we're being recognized as being contributors to the public system."

In the province's budget, unveiled last week, the government says it intends to spend $47 million during the next three years on construction and land costs for charter school and collegiate expansions — particularly for schools that pair with post-secondary institutions and employers to develop skills and trades.

There is another $25 million over three years for equipment and furniture to help these schools get going. Koper says such startup costs can be a substantial hurdle for grassroots groups who want to start a new charter school.

Although the government won't release school funding details yet for the coming year, several sources within the charter system say that for the first time, the schools will receive the same funding for students with extra needs as public schools.

"I'm super excited about that, because we have been writing letters and having meetings and fighting for equity for these students," said Nicole Palmer, chair of the Suzuki Charter School board in Edmonton.

Since it took office in 2019, the United Conservative Party government has tried to create a more flexible environment for charter schools. Alberta is the only province with charters.

When people in a community want a school that has a unique focus or subscribes to a teaching style not offered in any public school, they can propose a charter school to the government. The province can't create a charter school — grassroots communities have to request them.

Since the government changed the law to allow charter schools in 1994, there had been a cap of 15 of them in the province. The UCP government lifted that cap in 2019, and in 2020, changed charter school regulations to become more flexible. Education Minister Adriana LaGrange also lifted the schools' enrolment caps, which have prompted lotteries and waiting lists for students.

Last week's throne speech promised even more regulatory changes and resources for the schools.

Although the government won't yet reveal those regulatory changes, Koper said charters have asked for permission to buy and sell land, construct schools, and own property, which is currently not allowed.

Elbow to elbow in Suzuki school

Edmonton's music-focused Suzuki Charter School could badly use more space, board chair Palmer says. It's housed in a former public elementary school building in Capilano.

Students at Edmonton's Suzuki Charter School practice a Black Sabbath song on violins as part of their daily music education. Suzuki is one of 15 charter schools in the province. The provincial government has announced it is increasing funding for the schools and plans to give them more flexibility to expand. (Travis McEwan/CBC News)

In response to parent demand, Suzuki began expanding to the junior high grades last year. The 385 students in kindergarten through Grade 8 arrive at school toting instruments in cases, from flutes to cellos. The hallways are lined with instrument storage racks.

Some music classes take place in the library. Another classroom is tightly packed with pianos.

Students at Edmonton's Suzuki Charter School practice a new piano piece the class is learning. Suzuki is one of 15 charter schools in the province. The provincial government has announced it is increasing funding for the schools and plans to give them more flexibility to expand. (Janet French/CBC News)

Palmer says the school uses a lottery system to decide which students will be accepted. They turn at least 50 students away every fall, she said.

Palmer said if they had more space, they'd be able to accommodate demand. 

If they qualified for provincial maintenance funding, they would replace the building's aging windows. And, they could potentially open a second campus, and develop a space more suitable for junior high students.

More funding for students with disabilities will allow schools to hire more educational assistants.

At a news conference in Acme earlier this week, LaGrange said she doesn't have a goal for the expansion of charter schools. She said the government is trying to support schools that already exist.

"We're seeing that innovation and creativity, whether it's in a charter school or in a public school. We celebrate that, and as long as parents are looking for that, then I won't be controlling the number of charter schools," she said. "It will be the parents themselves who will choose that for their children."

LaGrange says charter schools currently enrol 1.5 per cent of the province's K-12 student population, and receive 1.2 per cent of education operating funds.

Students at Edmonton's Suzuki Charter school rehearse a piece of music as an ensemble. Suzuki is one of 15 charter schools in the province. The provincial government has announced it is increasing funding for the schools and plans to give them more flexibility to expand. (Travis McEwan/CBC News)

There are critics of Alberta's charter system. Some public education advocates say charters don't have to accept all students who apply, like most public schools, and shouldn't be funded the same way.

It's a particularly sore spot given an education budget that has been mostly frozen for Alberta schools during the last three years while student enrolment climbed and inflation pushed up costs.

Palmer and Koper say they are frustrated by what they say are myths about charter schools. They say the schools have the same — or better — accountability and transparency as other public schools, and have been doing more with less funding.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Janet French is a provincial affairs reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has also worked at the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca

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