Edmonton·In Depth

New Alberta law creates more options for home educators and charter schools

Alberta parents educating their kids at home now have the choice to do so without a teacher’s supervision.

Choice in Education Act came into force this month

Families who home school children have a new option this year -- they can run an unsupervised program, where no teacher reviews a yearly plan or checks in on progress. In exchange, the family gives up any government funding for home schooling. (Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images)

Alberta parents educating their kids at home now have the choice to do so without a teacher's supervision.

The United Conservative Party government's platform promise to give families more choices in how to educate their children is now enshrined in law. For the first time, home educators have the option to teach kids "unsupervised."

They must give the provincial government notice that they're home-schooling their children, but no teacher needs to approve a plan. No teacher will check in twice a year to see how students are progressing.

Unsupervised families also give up access to $850 the government provides each year to spend on education resources.

The Alberta Home Education Association has been lobbying for the option. Spokesperson Shawna Sundal said last week some home educators value freedom more than government funding.

"People want to have choice," she said in an interview last week. "Some people don't feel that they need facilitator visits or the access to someone to give you advice. Within the home schooling community, there's a lot of connections and other ways that you can also receive support."

Before the legislature passed the Choice in Education Act in June, all home educators had to register their children with a school. That option is still available.

Last school year, 13,564 students were home educated in Alberta. The tally came from before the COVID-19 pandemic reached Alberta and shuttered schools, and made up less than two per cent of the province's 741,000 pre-kindergarten to Grade 12 students.

Judy Arnall, president of the Alberta Homeschooling Association, says not all home educators were pushing for the new unsupervised option.

Although a director with Alberta Education has the power to investigate any reports that children are not being adequately taught at home, Arnall questions how a government bureaucrat would know if a family's approach is sufficient.

Most parents she knows want hand-holding, resources and professional advice offered by the schools or school divisions that supervise home educators.

"What looks like school is not always what looks like education in the home," she said. "And they're very supportive. And parents are going to miss out on that."

Both Sundal and Arnall said it's hard to predict how many families will opt for the new, unsupervised route. The number of families home educating this year is likely to increase due to the pandemic.

Parent likes external checks of supervised option

Monique Palamattam will be educating her five-year-old son Isaiah at their Beaumont home this year. The teacher had previously home educated her older son at home for a year-and-a-half when he fell behind in language arts.

This year, she was concerned about sending her child to school during the pandemic. She also wasn't sure if the Grade 1 classroom teacher would have enough time to modify lessons for Isaiah's advanced reading level.

She's registered Isaiah for supervised home education, saying it's helpful to have an outside professional give feedback on where her kids are excelling and where they need more work.

This year, Monique Palamattam, left, will home educate her five-year-old son Isaiah. Palamattam is a teacher, and previously home educated her older son for a year-and-a-half. She's chosen to register Isaiah in a supervised home education program because she appreciates the evaluations from outside professionals. (Supplied)

Palamattam said it's important for her kids to learn material in the Alberta curriculum so they can be exposed to a variety of perspectives and move seamlessly into school in the future, should they wish.

"I think that we have a lot of options for our kids. I think that that's a blessing," she said. "I would not want to live in a place where everything is cookie cutter, and every kid has to do the exact same, whether that works for the family or not."

Families teaching students at home aren't obliged to follow the Alberta curriculum — the new legislation didn't change that. Those not following the curriculum do have to meet outcomes spelled out in provincial regulation.

Charter school landscape could also change

The new act also streamlined the process for starting a new charter school in Alberta.

A proponent no longer has to approach a local school board first to ask if it will offer the specialized program they seek. People can apply directly to the minister of education.

Last year, the government lifted the provincial cap on the number of charter schools, which was 15. Although there are 13 charter schools operating today, Colin Aitchison, press secretary to Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, said the minister has received an application to create an agriculture-based charter school in north-central Alberta. He would not provide more detail.

New charter school regulations that took effect last week also allow for vocational charter schools for the first time in Alberta. Aitchison said such a school would foster education in an occupation, calling trade or pursuit requiring specialized skills and knowledge that could lead to a career.

Ron Koper, board chair of the Association of Alberta Public Charter Schools said it's an exciting time for charters in Alberta. He expects to see several more groups apply to create schools under the new rules.

Charter schools, which are unique to Alberta within Canada, are fully publicly funded. They were introduced in the 1990s with the goal of sparking innovative ideas in delivering education that could be adopted and replicated within public school systems.

Koper said the new Choice in Education Act captures the direction of the provincial education system during the last few decades and articulates it in law.

"I think it is one of the most exciting things that has happened in Alberta education for a while," Koper said.

Some education experts don't see the changes as a major transformation.

University of Alberta education policy studies professor Darryl Hunter said Alberta was already a national exemplar in educational choice.

"The current government is interested in addressing the requests and demands of people within the constituency that support this government," Hunter said. "But, just to recognize, there's enormous choice within the public education system and between systems already in Alberta's school system."

He sees the changes sparking more charter school offerings at the high school level, possibly in technological trades.

Prof. Eugene Kowch, who studies education system performance and change at the University of Calgary, said it would be wise to research the success of students who are home educated under the new unsupervised model.

Teachers receive specialized training and must meet provincial quality standards in Alberta, he said. The government is still responsible for the quality of education children receive at home, he said.

About the Author

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

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