Charter school bill cuts public boards out of decision-making, critics say

Alberta’s education minister is defending a bill that would make it easier to establish charter schools from critics who say it erodes the strength of public education. 

Minister says Choice in Education Act designed to streamline approval process

Critics say the bill paves the way for the rise of charter schools, raising the prospects of eroding funds for public schools and a tiered education system. (Syda Productions/Shutterstock)

Alberta's education minister is defending a bill that would make it easier to establish charter schools from critics who say it erodes the strength of public education. 

In an interview with CBC's Radio Active on Friday, Adriana LaGrange said the proposed Choice in Education Act is about "affirming a parent's right to choose the kind of education they want for their child." 

Currently, charter schools have to consult with the public school board where they intend to operate.

Under the proposed changes, those wishing to establish a charter school would go directly to the minister. LaGrange says the move is intended to streamline the application process.

But Edmonton Public Schools board chair Trisha Estabrooks says the change cuts public school boards out of the decision-making process. 

"There should be consultation, there should be conversation with the local school board," Estabrooks said. "It makes it easier for charters to open up. It paves the way." 

Current legislation says a charter school has to demonstrate its proposed program is qualitatively different than what is offered by the public board. But under the new bill, the education minister could approve a charter as long as it offers "vocation-based education," even if a similar program is already provided by the local public division.

Ron Koper, chair of the Association of Alberta Public Charter Schools, says Alberta Education is best positioned to determine the needs of students across the province. 

"I think it'll give them the opportunity to help develop the best options possible for Alberta students," he said.

Charter school proponents argue the publicly funded programs bring alternatives to the wider education system while offering parents more choice. Under an independent board, the argument goes that a charter school can experiment with other types of programs, whether that's vocational education or programs for teens who have faltered in the public system. 

"We serve public school students and families with public funds, with public accountability, to the same standard as the public school," said Koper. "They're all able to use the charter to move forward and really innovate in the context of that charter, which is hugely valuable to the system overall." 

'It erodes public education'

But that thinking is not without its detractors, who argue charter schools create a tiered system where the public board is pushed to compete for enrolment and preserve funding. All students should have the same educational opportunities, the argument goes, and charter schools start to chip away at that by offering specialized programs with sometimes prohibitive barriers, from lengthy applications to long wait-times.

Charter school teachers can't be fully unionized and aren't subject to the same professional conduct standards as public educators.

"If we have more charter schools pop up, it's going to take dollars and students away from public schools, especially I'd be worried about funding," said Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teachers' Association.

The Alberta School Boards Association raised similar concerns in a statement issued Friday. 

The proposed bill comes after the government scrapped a condition that capped the number of charter schools in the province at 15, a condition that had been in place since charter schools were legislated into existence in 1994. Alberta is the only Canadian province that permits charter schools, with 13 in operation, including three in Edmonton. 

"The more charter schools there are, the more it erodes public education," Estabrooks said. "They're receiving public dollars but not truly being accessible to the public." 

LaGrange said the limited number of charter schools in Edmonton is a testament to the varied programs already offered by the public boards. The government has not received any charter school applications since the UCP came to power in the 2019 election. 

"The vast majority of students do attend public school but for those that have a need for a different type of schooling, there is choice for them," she said. 

The government released survey results alongside the bill, which show nearly 62 per cent of respondents were satisfied with the amount of educational choice available in the province. Roughly 17 per cent said they were dissatisfied, while the rest were either neutral, didn't know or did not respond. 

With files from Mirna Djukic and Lucie Edwardson


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