Opinion: Charter schools erode public education

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in the Feb. 15 Edmonton Journal, David Staples lauded the benefits of charter schools in a column praising the breadth of school choices available in the capital region. While Edmonton Public Schools are being forced to compete with charter and private-schooling options for limited public funds, we need to ask whether this competition for resources is equitable for children. At a time when Alberta public schools are losing EAs, teachers, librarians, and school counselors, is it really fiscally responsible to funnel more money into exclusive options outside of the public system such as charter schools?

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With three new charter schools approved to open in Edmonton, it is important to remain critical of charter schools’ detrimental effects on the public-schooling system. Charter schools are not resource-neutral. This means the public resources they take up need to be accounted for.

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They should be held to the same return-on-investment thresholds as public-school funding, but since their introduction in Alberta in 1994, their supposed net benefits (eg “innovation,” “competition,” “unique teaching styles”) to date have not been adequately quantified.

Charter schools are granted 100 per cent of the per-pupil instructional rate in a quasi-voucher manner. That means funding follows the student out of the true public system. However, these government public dollars are not scrutinized in the same way as the Edmonton Public School Boards’ finances which are open and transparent by law.

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That’s because charter schools are governed by private boards of directors. Even though they are non-profit and cannot be religious in nature, charter boards are not subject to open elections so they do not democratically represent the local or broader communities.

In addition to their private governance and lack of oversight, charter schools can skim students. They are categorically exempt from accepting students with complex needs, and can turn away students who don’t fit their arbitrary criteria. Thus, charter schools can homogenize their school population to streamline their business model while leaving the rest to the public school.

Meanwhile, public school classrooms are becoming increasingly more complex as a direct reflection of the diversity and complex needs of the landscape in the community. The Education Act and Charter School Regulation provide abundant permission for charters to deny students as long as the charter claims certain students do not fit their admission-eligibility requirements.

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A 2011 study by Scott Imberman found that charter schools actually have a negative effect on neighboring public schools because they change the peer environment and reduce resources going to the public schools around them. In this way, “choice” for charter-accepted families actually translates into less “choice” for families attending the other neighborhood school whose resources are being siphoned.

In October 2022, we were copied on a letter from a family in Sherbrooke whose children were stalled for years on a waitlist for the charter school in their area. The family lives four blocks from the charter but were not admitted. The family said they believed this practice was “elitist and unacceptable because publicly funded schools should strengthen the community around it and not just the students within its four walls.” This happens to many Edmonton families as charter schools market themselves as “public” while in practice they are not accessible to the local neighborhood children.

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Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB)’s general programming still must comply with catchment acceptance. EPSB must regularly report their programming outcomes and efficiencies, follow strict utilization rates, and answer to both the province and their constituents. EPSB, as a publicly governed authority, has far more parameters to follow in this so-called competition for innovation.

In reality, it is the fight for limited government funds that unfairly skews the advantage towards charters. Meanwhile, charters are renewed at the discretion of the minister alone without public oversight or criticism while charter schools are granted considerable latitude to operate exclusionary programs for small batches of students with public dollars. Since the UCP removed the cap of 15 on approved charter schools and removed public school boards’ consultation for new charter applications, the accelerated marketization of charter schools is going to erode the public system faster than in the past 30 years by draining funds, students, and resources from financially strapped public schools.

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Original charter school proponents in the US and UK have turned their backs against charter schools because the charter experiment failed to deliver outcomes. We just need to look at the US’s struggling public school system where about one in three fourth graders cannot read at basic grade level. Rampant “educational choice” policies have leached government resources and exacerbated inequalities along lines of socioeconomic status, race, and ability.

Charter schools are not public schools. While they receive public dollars, they are not publicly accessible and not publicly governed. They are also not publicly evaluated as they are not systematically assessed and their public benefits remain unstudied.

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Even though the UCP rolled charters into the “public school” tent by changing the Education Act to improve the branding of charter schools, they remain a dangerous siphon of resources from the public system. Charter schools are hotbeds of privatization and they should be rolled back into the true public education system.

We need to be critical about applying a consumer lens to schooling through the concept of “choice” and “commercial branding” because this stacks up educational opportunities for some while preventing access for others. We must return to the original democratic promise of public education which envisions a barrier-free, quality, and well-rounded education for every child.

As we look to the future, we need policies that bolster public education as a public good for all instead of expanding exclusionary and undemocratic entities like charter schools.

Wing Li (she/her) is communications director of Support Our Students Alberta, a province-wide public education advocacy organization.


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