Charter Schools, Alberta Style

Article excerpt

Alberta is the first Canadian province to "boldly" test the waters of charter schools. This development is probably not too surprising, since the Alberta government, under the leadership of Ralph Klein, is drastically cutting all social services in the name of deficit reduction. Deficit reduction, which seems to have momentarily mesmerized many Albertans, is the excuse the Conservative government needed to restructure Alberta education.

The legislation for restructuring education was Bill 19, the School Amendment Act. The bill provided for a number of changes to the School Act. Alberta's Minister of Education, Halvar Jonson, in introducing the bill in the legislature in March 1994, pointed out that "the most significant changes relate to the refinancing of education ... and the increase in local decision making through school-based management and charter schools." Bill 19 was proclaimed into law in May 1994, making Alberta the first Canadian province to take such a "bold initiative."

The climate in Alberta was ripe for the introduction of charter schools. The neo-conservative ideology of the Klein government, the savage cutbacks to social services, and experiments in privatization, coupled with the pressure exerted on the ministry of education by the vocal critics of the public school system, were among the reasons for Alberta's legislation establishing charter schools. The legislation provided for "a limited number of charter schools to allow for additional parental and student choice in curriculum and educational delivery within the public and separate school systems."

Alberta Education (the provincial department of education) considers its concept of charter schools to be different from and philosophically superior to the concept behind the more than 230 charter schools operating in 19 states in the U.S. The legislation provides what the government feels will appease both advocates and critics of the charter school concept. According to the Charter School Handbook, charter schools:

* must be open to all students who can benefit from the program offered;

* cannot charge tuition fees;

* must employ certified teachers (charter school teachers do not have to be members of the Alberta Teachers Association, whereas membership is compulsory for all teachers in the public system);

* will be funded at a level comparable to that of other public schools;

* will be subject to provincial standards and testing;

* may not be affiliated with a religious faith or denomination, except when a charter school is established by a separate school board, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic;

* will not receive start-up money from Alberta Education; and

* must follow the "charter" agreement and must be accountable to a school board or to Alberta Education as the holding authority of the charter.(1)

The guidelines make it clear that charter schools must offer "innovative or enhanced educational services which will enhance student learning." Enhanced student learning "means improved acquisition, in some measurable way, of skills, attitudes and knowledge." Moreover, the renewal of the charter depends on successful results. Yet the most easily measurable knowledge tends to be information-based and driven by rote learning and direct instruction. With an emphasis on this type of learning, it is not likely that students will be adequately prepared to compete in the global economy - which is the Conservative government's goal for Alberta students.

To date five charters have been granted in Alberta. Three of these schools are already functioning, and the other two will be operational in the next few months. Two of these schools are set up for the gifted and talented, one is for at-risk students aged 9 to 19, and one is designed for academic and personal excellence for grades 1 through 9. The fifth, the Suzuki charter school in Edmonton, has music as its focus. …

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