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Are charter schools public?


April 7, 2022 Lisa Everitt, ATA Executive Staff Officer

Alberta is the only province with charter schools in Canada. The ability to apply for and open a charter school in Alberta has been available since the early 1990s. At that time, the politicians of the day touted charter schools as providing parental choice in education and as examples of innovation for the public system, claiming they would become key centres for educational research. When charter schools were founded, there was a sense that once their five-year charters were concluded, the schools would either be absorbed into the public education system or closed. However, this did not happen, and charter schools remain part of the education landscape in Alberta. 

As an ATA staff officer and as a part of my doctoral work, I have met many charter school teachers, school leaders and system leaders, many of whom also had experience in the public, separate or francophone school systems. I have been impressed with the dedication and expertise shown by these professional teachers and leaders to their school communities. In addition, I have visited charter schools and found that while the specific focus for the school may be obvious at the school, there is little to distinguish charter schools from public schools. In both public and charter schools, staff, including teachers and school leaders, work hard to provide meaningful education experiences for the students and build vibrant school communities.

Given the apparent lack of distinction between charter schools and public schools in terms of lived experience, the analysis of the differences between charter schools and public schools must be done at a philosophical and policy level. Philosophically, public schools were created to provide education to all children in Alberta regardless of their race, socio-economic status, ability, gender or family background. On the other hand, charter schools are designed to address particular interests within a parent or corporate community. Historically, charter schools have been able to refuse students with exceptional needs from attending. 

At a policy level, charter schools and public schools have different systems of governance. Public schools are governed by school board trustees elected by the public, while charter schools are governed by either a corporate board or a board elected from the parent body of the school. The key distinction between the governance structures is one of public and democratic accountability for policy decisions. Charter school advocates point out that they, like public schools, must report to Alberta Education on their financial activities, education plan and other accountability measures. They further point out that charter schools must achieve the terms set out within their charter, and this review is done by Alberta Education every five years or 15 years. While the accountability structures for public and charter schools are similar in terms of accountability to the Alberta government, the governance structures are fundamentally distinct.

The philosophical and policy differences between public and charter schools are what give rise to the concerns the ATA has about charter schools. First, the ATA’s policy advocates for a well-funded and universally accessible education system. While charter schools are not as exclusive as private schools, they can refuse some students access. In addition, the differences in governance structures lead to concerns about public accountability, including contemplation of how schools serve entire communities, not just part of a community. Finally, over the years, successive governments have loosened the requirements to open new charter schools, and now charter schools will receive infrastructure money. Given that charter schools are not publicly accountable, what happens to the infrastructure if a charter school is dissolved? In the absence of public and democratic accountability for charter school governors, this is a significant issue. A cautionary tale can be found in the United States, which allows for-profit charter schools, where hundreds of millions of dollars of public money have been siphoned off to private for-profit charter school operators. 

While charter schools in Alberta have been, until recently, a tightly regulated and controlled education experiment, there are signals this could change. The cap on the number of charter schools in Alberta was lifted, and in the more recent past, at least four new charter schools were given permission to open in Alberta. In addition, the 2022/23 funding manual has allocated start-up and infrastructure money to be made available for charter schools. Proportionally, in this year’s education budget, charter schools, which serve only 1.5 per cent* of the student body compared to public schools, have clearly been advantaged. The fragmentation of the public school system by the creation of charter schools only serves to advance private interests and because of that, the public interest is left behind, and that is why charter schools are not truly public. ❚

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