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Editorial: Expanded choice puts access and equity in jeopardy

June 11, 2019 Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief

“Do not read this book straight from beginning to end,” warn the inside covers of the Choose Your Own Adventure books that were so popular in my elementary school.

“Think carefully before you make a move! One mistake can be your last… or it may lead you to fame and fortune!”

Choice is a powerful and seductive concept. And its use regarding education is a classic case of political framing, where a policy position gets cloaked in a term that automatically evokes either a positive or negative sentiment.

How is one supposed to argue against choice? Choice is inherently good, and therefore more choice must automatically be better — or so the theory goes.

This frame is going to be used extensively over the next few months and years. And discussion on the embedded policy positions is already being framed as prochoice or antichoice.

The Alberta Teachers’ Association is not against choice. Nor — despite popular narrative — is it against charter schools or private schools. It is against features built into the system that enhance privatization, competition and segregation in education. These elements are not constructive in advancing the goals of a public education system that seeks to ensure that all children are provided with a fair opportunity to achieve their greatest potential. (In Alberta, public education refers to schools operated by public, separate and francophone school boards.)

Private and charter schools have extensive freedom to select the types of students who are granted entrance to them. In some cases this is done through entrance requirements based on IQ test results or previous academic achievement. In other cases, the admissions process specifically excludes students with special learning needs. Sometimes the barrier is financial, as high tuition, program or transportation fees make some schools completely inaccessible to many students. And, some students are encouraged — either before or after admission — to consider public school as a more appropriate placement.

There are two other, less apparent barriers that also exist for many students and parents.

The first relates to transportation and logistics. Attending one’s neighbourhood school is simpler, easier and cheaper than attending a school further away. Busing adds logistical challenges to the morning routine; attending after-school activities can be burdensome for students and family; and even the act of “shopping” for a school has logistical complexity. All of this complexity adds a disproportionate barrier for lower income families.

Secondly, the extent to which a parent participates in school shopping is a general indication of their level of engagement in their child’s learning.

Put all together, in very general terms, students in private and charter schools tend to come in with higher academic ability, fewer special needs, more parental engagement and higher family income — all factors that are associated with better individual achievement outcomes.

To make matters worse, groups like the Fraser Institute publish school rankings to suggest that private and charter schools are better schools because they have higher test scores.

In actuality, these schools are choosing their students, more than parents are choosing the schools. Access to so-called schools of choice is not universal and definitely not equitable.

It is often said that private and charter schools “skim off the top,” while public schools serve the students that remain regardless of academic ability or learning need. Crudely put, private and charter schools teach the children that are the easiest and cheapest to educate while public schools teach the students that are more challenging and expensive to educate.

Again, public school teachers, parents and advocates are not necessarily against choice or against private or charter schools. What they are against is a system that would provide further advantage to the already advantaged, while the needs of the rest are not being met. What we want more than anything else is strong, well-supported schools for the children in the public education system.

If we are going to talk about choice in education, then we’d better, at the exact same time, be talking about how we ensure that those without the choice are being provided with top-quality educational opportunities, through a well-funded public education system. ❚

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