Jane Walker is a veteran private-school parent, happy with her experience. Her three eldest children attended Tempo School in Edmonton, and it was “academically superb,” says Walker, a former teacher, whose husband, John, is a senior manager with the Alberta government. But by the time her fourth and fifth children reached school age, the cumulative cost had become prohibitive.
Walker then put all five kids into the public system—only to grow increasingly frustrated with what she saw as a failure to teach basic principles. Her frustration peaked two years ago when her second youngest son was in Grade 3 and she felt that, although bright, he was simply not learning one mathematical concept before moving on to another. When she started talking with friends, Walker found that many of them were unhappy, too. “Their children were not numerate or literate,” she says. That was in the fall of 1993, about the time that Alberta Premier Ralph Klein started talking about his intention to launch a new experiment in education. So-called charter schools would combine the autonomy of private | schools with the government funding accorded public ones. “I rallied a few friends,” Walker recalls, “and I said, ‘What about a charter school where you can bring in a back-to-basics education, where children don’t get to the next grade until they have mastered the first one?’ ” Charter schools already exist in at least 11 American states. And this fall, Alberta will become home to the first Canadian ones—although some charter school proponents say that government delays in introducing regulations will mean that only a handful will open. Such schools are part of the Klein government’s wholesale overhaul of education—reforms driven in part by deep budget cuts, but also by a movement to shift some power from teachers and school boards to parents. To create a charter school, groups of parents, often working with like-minded teachers, must provide a curriculum and philosophy that meets broad provincial guidelines—but offers a program that is distinct from what is already available locally in the public system. Their distinction could come from either subject matter, such as a focus on core curriculum, or an alternative method of teaching particular subjects. Regardless, each school’s founders sign a “charter” agreement with either a local school board or the minister of education to become autonomous administrators of the school. In return, the government provides full funding for each student, with which the parents hire staff and resources and lease space.
Like many of Klein’s grassroots reforms, charter schools have been the object of intense debate. Some critics maintain that the government is unfairly denigrating the quality of public education to jus-
tify the creation of charter schools. But an even bigger concern is that such schools will drain increasingly scarce resources from public schools, as the best-organized parents siphon off funding for their own ventures. “We see them as fragmenting the education system,” says Alberta Teachers’ Association president Bauni Mackay.
Proponents say such arguments are unfounded: provincial regulations demand that charter schools must be open to all students who wish to attend. And they note that, unlike private schools, charter schools cannot charge tuition fees. In fact, supporters say that the ultimate goal of the charter school movement is to improve public education—by providing competition. “The public system is a quasi-monopoly,” argues Dr. Joe Freedman, a longtime education reformer from Red Deer, Alta. “It stays in business, come hell or high water and it does not have to do well. There is nothing like empty seats and dollars gone from
their system to make public educators become more responsive.”
The provincial government is determined to stay the course— although it released its own regulations on April 21, later than expected. According to the rules, the government will eventually allow up to 15 schools. But education department spokesman Garth Norris says that he expects only four or five this fall. Among them will likely be a group hoping to establish a school to address the educational needs of street kids and one geared to gifted children.
In the meantime, the Edmonton Public School Board has succeeded in convincing four groups, including one headed by Walker, to cooperate in the creation of so-called alternative schools, which make use of existing board resources while giving parents a greater say in staffing, curriculum and day-to-day school activities. Although Walker says that her group could have pressed ahead with its charter school proposal, she argues that the late release of the provincial government’s regulations means that now there is simply not enough time. But she is philosophical. “If we get what we are after—a safe, nurturing environment where you toe the line and you learn,” says Walker, “we will be happy as clams.” If that is not the case, she notes, her group can resurrect the charter school proposal next year. In either case, the new legislation appears to have prompted the beginnings of more public schools shaped in part by private priorities.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.