Char­ter schools could bring di­ver­sity, sav­ings to N.L. pub­lic school sys­tem

The Labradorian - - Editorial - Paige Macpher­son, Au­thor of “An Un­tapped Po­ten­tial for Ed­u­ca­tional Di­ver­sity: Pol­icy Lessons from Al­berta Char­ter Schools” AIMS, Hal­i­fax

Kids in New­found­land and Labrador aren’t get­ting a fair shake. They don’t have ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tional choices they de­serve — and they’re stuck with debt they’ll be pay­ing for decades.

While stu­dents in five prov­inces have a di­verse range of par­tially or fully funded school op­tions, ac­cess to unique, in­de­pen­dently op­er­ated schools in N.L. de­pends on where fam­i­lies live and whether par­ents can af­ford it. Al­most al­ways, stu­dents must at­tend the pub­lic school in their area, even if it’s not the best fit for their learn­ing needs.

Premier Dwight Ball and Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Al Hawkins can find an in­no­va­tive so­lu­tion right here in Canada: char­ter schools. A new re­port from the At­lantic In­sti­tute for Mar­ket Stud­ies (AIMS) shows char­ter schools have been suc­cess­ful in Al­berta for more than two decades, and could de­liver big ben­e­fits for N.L. stu­dents — while sav­ing money.

Char­ter schools are au­ton­o­mous, gov­ern­ment-funded, non-profit, pub­lic schools which charge no tu­ition. Each school of­fers a unique ap­proach to learn­ing.

Al­berta has 23 char­ter school cam­puses rang­ing from el­e­men­tary to high school.

They’re lo­cated mostly in Cal­gary and Ed­mon­ton, but a few are in smaller cities and ru­ral ar­eas.

Al­berta’s char­ter schools fo­cus on ev­ery­thing from aca­demic en­rich­ment to sup­port for stu­dents who’ve ex­pe­ri­enced men­tal health strug­gles or trauma. Some of­fer pro­gres­sive arts pro­gram­ming or an em­pha­sis on women and girls. One char­ter school tar­gets stu­dents for whom English is a sec­ond lan­guage; an­other spe­cial­izes in sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy. Oth­ers teach in­ten­sive mu­sic ed­u­ca­tion, pro­mote ru­ral com­mu­nity lead­er­ship, or of­fer In­dige­nous learn­ing.

N.L.’S pub­lic school sys­tem has al­most no di­ver­sity. The char­ter school model al­lows com­mu­nity groups of par­ents and ed­u­ca­tors to start their own char­ter schools, if ap­proved by the ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter.

Char­ter schools have de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing sought af­ter. The AIMS re­port shows char­ter school en­rol­ment is grow­ing rel­a­tive to to­tal school-age pop­u­la­tion in Al­berta. In 2015, 11,000 stu­dents were re­port­edly on the wait­list for one char­ter academy.

The schools also de­liver im­pres­sive aca­demic re­sults. An anal­y­sis of grades 6 and 9 Al­berta stan­dard­ized test score data be­tween 1997/1998 and 2016/2017 shows that char­ter schools on av­er­age al­most al­ways score bet­ter than all other types of schools — in­clud­ing in­de­pen­dent schools that charge tu­ition.

Char­ter schools aren’t gov­ern­ment-run, but the New­found­land and Labrador gov­ern­ment can de­mand a high level of ac­count­abil­ity. In Al­berta, the gov­ern­ment lim­its which types of char­ter schools can open (for example, pro­hibit­ing them from be­ing re­li­gious), and man­dates that they be non-profit.

Char­ter schools can also help stu­dents at greater risk of fall­ing through the cracks. Re­search from the United States shows dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents have ben­e­fited the most from U.S. char­ter schools.

The bud­get deficits in New­found­land and Labrador re­quire so­lu­tions, and char­ter schools are sig­nif­i­cantly less ex­pen­sive for tax­pay­ers than tra­di­tional pub­lic schools.

Based on 2015 num­bers from the Fraser In­sti­tute, the Al­berta gov­ern­ment’s per-stu­dent sub­sidy for char­ter schools saves $4,284 for ev­ery stu­dent, ev­ery year, ver­sus pub­lic school. Us­ing the Fraser In­sti­tute’s 2012/2013 num­bers, if 50 per cent of Al­berta’s 473,174 pub­lic school stu­dents moved to char­ter schools, the sav­ings would be over $1 bil­lion per year.

Al­berta has per­mit­ted char­ter schools for more than 20 years, so 23 schools cam­puses is a tiny num­ber. A cou­ple of clumsy reg­u­la­tory bar­ri­ers make it need­lessly dif­fi­cult to open a char­ter school, and the gov­ern­ment doesn’t fund in­fra­struc­ture or trans­porta­tion costs. This saves money in the short term, but likely dis­cour­ages growth. New­found­land has the ben­e­fit of learn­ing from Al­berta’s ex­pe­ri­ence to de­sign its own pol­icy or pi­lot project.

Char­ter schools can shake up the ed­u­ca­tion sta­tus quo in New­found­land and Labrador. They could bring more di­ver­sity into the pub­lic sys­tem, at no cost to par­ents, aim­ing for bet­ter stu­dent out­comes at a much lower cost. The proof is in the data — and the thou­sands of Al­berta par­ents wait­ing to get their kids signed up, year af­ter year. Don’t kids in New­found­land and Labrador de­serve the same?

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