MINI-EP: Charter Schools: Public Dollars for Private Interests

Alberta is the only province in the country that allows charter schools, and Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party has now removed the cap that had limited their expansion. Joel French, Executive Director of Public Interest Alberta, joins Team Advantage to discuss the first new charter school in Alberta in 13 years, opening about 50km from Edmonton. Why a new charter school— in the same location a public school recently closed? How does this relate to the broader changes that are happening within Alberta’s public education system?

Follow Joel French on Twitter @JoelFrench, and follow Public Interest Alberta’s work at pialberta.org and @PIAlberta.

A full transcript follows the break.

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Kate: The Alberta Advantage is supported by listeners like you. Independent listener-supported media like this podcast is possible only thanks to the generous support of our listeners. If you think what we do is important, please head over to patreon.com/albertaadvantage and support our work with a monthly donation.

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Kate: Hello, and welcome to The Alberta Advantage. My name is Kate Jacobson, and, today, we’re going to be talking about public education and charter schools in Alberta. Joining me is Joel French, Executive Director of Public Interest Alberta. Joel, thank you for joining me here on Team Advantage.

Joel: Thanks for having me. Great to be back.

Kate: So, some Albertans — and, likely, many Canadians — might not know that Alberta is the only jurisdiction in Canada where it is legal to operate a charter school, and many of our listeners may not even know what differentiates a charter school from a public school. Could you explain the difference between these two forms of education to us?

Joel: Yeah. I mean, I think we’re still at a point where a lot of Albertans don’t actually know Alberta has charter schools, let alone that the rest of the country doesn’t have them at all, that we’re an outlier. Basically how I explain charter schools is that they are private schools that get full public funding — so, they operate in private schools in that they have the ability to pick their students, which also means they have the ability to reject students that they don’t want. They generally have a very specialized kind of focus, which can be a lot of different things, and one of the very important points is that they are not accountable to democratically-elected school boards; so, they have their own private school boards that they report to, and, therefore, even though they receive 100% per student public funding, they don’t have to report back to the public; they’re not accountable in the same way that private Catholic and francophone schools have to be to their school boards.

Kate: So, despite the presence of charter schools in Alberta — which, as you’ve explained, is kind of a legal irregularity in Canada — the number of charter schools in Alberta has remained constant, at least until now. So, a 15-school cap on the number of charter schools had existed, but the United Conservative Party, who is currently in government, removed that cap. And, now, the Alberta government has given the green light to the first new charter school in 13 years, and the new charter school would operate in a building that was closed as a public school in June. Could you tell us a bit about the public school that was shut down, where it was located, and what was the justification for closing it?

Joel: Yeah — that public school was an elementary school in the town of Calmar (which is just outside of Edmonton, pretty close to Leduc, for those familiar with the area), and I think it’s symptomatic of what’s happening in a lot of rural areas. In the urban areas, we talk a lot about the classrooms being overcrowded and that being a major issue and teachers and support staff being really stretched thin. In rural schools, often, the challenge is the opposite, it’s that they don’t have enough students to fill a class, or the government or the school board says that they don’t have enough, which just means that they’re not willing to spend the dollars to keep the class sizes as small as they are. But, in some places, legitimately, they are very, very small, and it’s very difficult to keep a school going if you don’t have enough, because so many folks are moving to the cities from those smaller towns. And, so, the school board decided to close the school for those reasons. I mean, it happens in urban areas as well, especially in core neighbourhoods — we’ve seen a lot of schools closed over the years, too, for somewhat similar reasons, I guess. But it’s been fairly common, as far as charter schools go, for them to swoop in and scoop up public buildings. Many of the existing charter schools operate in properties that are still owned by school boards, and almost all of them are in Calgary and Edmonton or the surrounding area. I think it’s important, when we talk about the number of charter schools — so, there has been a legislated cap of fifteen since they were first introduced. We’ve never reached that cap before. So, there are 13 charter schools occupying 23 school buildings — so, when we say 13 schools, it doesn’t mean 13 school buildings, it means 13 of the charters which each have a board. So, some of them operate multiple sites. There is at least one in Calgary that has several sites. And so the problem is actually a little bigger than what we say, although, in the grand scheme of things, when we’re talking about student enrolment overall, in charter schools in the province, we’re really talking about a little more than one percent of the student population — so, they don’t serve a huge number of students overall, either.

Kate: What’s a real curiosity to me about this specific case of this school in Calmar being closed down is: it is being replaced by a charter school, it’s going to operate in the exact same building. How could it possibly make sense to open up a school in the exact same place as a public school that was deemed no longer viable to operate?

Joel: Yeah. I mean, the way that they’re planning to do it is, like I mentioned earlier, charter schools generally have a really specific target market — so, this one is going to be an agricultural school, and so what they’ll aim to do, if they’re going to make it viable in some way, is to attract students that live outside, or maybe students that live in that area that have chosen to go to other schools, because that’s something that you can do in parts of Alberta. So, they’re going to be hoping that they can attract enough students that think this is a good enough program that they have to travel further to get there. Interestingly, a lot of public school boards actually do that kind of thing, and I have mixed feelings about. Edmonton Public Schools, for example, is at the forefront of it in Alberta, and CBE, in Calgary, is somewhat similar but not as far ahead as Edmonton Public, where they have what they call “alternative programs” in public schools. In my view, some of those are really problematic, too, and some of them actually operate somewhat like private schools in the sense of being able to have lengthy and really difficult application and qualification standards and application processes, which means that they can accept and reject students in the same way that I mentioned charter schools do. They are still accountable to public school boards. So, this will be a school that further splinters the public education systems overall in the province. I think, administratively, they are much less efficient because each of them has its own administration and financial accounting to do, so it splinters a lot of that. And then the local folks that go to that school — maybe it is a lot of the folks that used to go to the public school that was closed — they no longer get the same kind of accountability out to the public that members of the community that actually pay tax dolars into making sure these schools operate. There’s not the same kind of transparency, so it’s much more difficult to tell if the money is being properly spent, if the school’s operating in a transparent and a healthy way. So I think there are all kinds of problems that could be caused, and we’ll see, ultimately — assuming that the rest of the process goes through and they end up opening it — if it is, in fact, a viable school or if it’s, maybe, some kind of pipe dream that they just hope people are really demanding right now.

Kate: So, this kind of starving of funds that you’ve outlined — and, more generally, the erosion of trust in the public education system — does really seem to be a priority for the UCP government. In late October, the recommended changes to the kindergarten to grade 4 curriculum were leaked, and among the many recommendations were these proposals: it included lumping in Canada’s history of residential schools with, quote, “harsh schooling the past,” end quote — like Dickensian schooling and 19th century discipline — and the leaked document actually explained that residential schools are too sad for children to learn about. It also recommended that 7- and 8-year-olds learn about feudalism, Chinese dynasties, Homer’s Odyssey in Social Studies classes, that young children memorize lengthy lists of names, landmarks, and dates, that 5- and 6-year-olds in grade 1 should be familiar with the artwork of artists like Claude Monet and Georgia O’Keefe, and that first graders should learn that Biblical and Indigenous verses about creation as poetry, and that fourth graders should learn that most non-white Albertans are Christians, among a litany of similarly truly bizarre recommendations. And, after this, there were calls from the Alberta Teachers Association that one of the province’s main curriculum advisors, Chris Champion, be fired, in particular because he called the inclusion of First Nations perspectives in Canadian curriculum a fad and cast doubt of the suffering of children who experienced residential schools. And I’m kind of curious — what do you think is going on with this curriculum review, with the way it was leaked and then the way that the government talked about it, and then, more broadly, with this government and public education in Alberta?

Joel: Yeah. There’s a lot to unpack there, obviously. I mean, I think that this government — ironically, given the accusations made against the NDP government — its ideology is dominating this curriculum process or, at least, what we’ve seen of it so far. So much of it has been quite secretive, and, in fact, as you mentioned, this was a leaked document — this wasn’t even something that they intended to be out to the public because they’ve been keeping everything hush-hush and behind closed doors. I think they were really caught off guard. I think they’re going to be under a lot of pressure, now, to really make some serious changes. I mean, some of those things seem, frankly, just out of touch, which is bad enough, but some of it is clearly rooted in racism and intolerance, and I guess those shouldn’t be surprising things coming from this government, given some of the things that we’ve seen from them so far, but I think Albertans, rightly, are quite outraged right now that these are even proposals and that this is coming from a panel of folks that the UCP appointed. So, I think they’re really breaking down a lot of trust in the process before the process is even out there publicly. I think they really owe Albertans an explanation and an apology. I don’t think there was a good reason to, as they called it, shred the NDP’s review process that had happened. I also think that the NDP made a mistake, back when they launched their initial process. They made it seem very political from the start. They had the premier as the face of this, and, normally, when there’s a big curriculum review — which definitely needed to be done — it’s something that’s done a lot more within the bureaucracy and isn’t typically as much of a public debate. But we are where we are today, and it seems like the Kenney government, just like it’s done on so many other files, is taking something that, I think, was going quite well — even though, like I said, I think, process-wise, the NDP made some slip-ups, but I think what they were coming up with, as far as the curriculum went, seemed like it was going to be quite good and quite forward-thinking — and now the Kenney government is swinging us back to, I don’t even know what decade you would say, if this is back to the ‘50s or something like that; but, in lots of ways, this is a very old-fashioned and outdated and out of touch process for how it looks so far. And so it’s not final yet, and so it’s really up to the government, now, to give their heads a shake and to pick a completely different direction than what they have so far, but it’s tough to see how that could happen given how far they’ve gone down that path.

Kate: So, if our listeners are concerned about what is going on, broadly, with public education in Alberta, with either charter schools or curriculum changes or both, what should they do?

Joel: I think there’s a lot that folks can do. I think having these conversations in their communities is the place to start, but getting in touch with their politicians, whether they’re Conservative or NDP politicians, I think it’s important that those politicians hear from the people that they are supposed to represent in the legislature. And, honestly, I think a cause like this, joining it to some of the other things that are happening right now — I’m thinking of something like the wildcat strike that healthcare workers were on recently — going out and joining with those folks and realizing that a lot of those folks on the picket lines trying to protect our public healthcare from privatization, a lot of those folks have the same concerns as we’re talking about today, about privatization and charter schools as well as expansion of private schools in the education system and about curricuklum and the wrong ways that that is going. I think Albertans really need to join together across these different lines, because I think we have a lot of values in common, whether you’re working on K-12 issues or healthcare issues or climate change issues or workers’ rights, occupational health and safety. I really think that we need to connect together. So, the folks that are concerned about this: find some folks that are concerned about these other issues — and they’re not difficult to find given how public some of these things have been. I think that’s what’s really necessary, is solidarity between these different groups to really make a difference, to make Alebrtans pay a lot more attention and to put a higher priority on these issues and, therefore, really, to make politicians of all political parties feel the pressure to do something completely different than what we’re getting right now.

Kate: There’s also some organizations that are doing great work on this front. Support Our Students is one that we’ve had on our podcast before, and I think they do some really, really wonderful work, and, also, your organization, Public Interest Alberta. And, if our listeners want to find out more about you and your work with Public Interest Alberta, where should they be looking?

Joel: Yeah, I love the work of Support Our Students Alberta, too. I definitely encourage people to get involved there, but, for us, they can go to pialberta.org. What I just talked about, about connecting those issues, that’s a lot of what we’re designed to do as an organization — we do a lot of work on these K-12 issues that we’re talking about today, but we work on issues like climate change, poverty, seniors’ care. We work, really, to connect a lot of these efforts and make sure that people can see the big picture and understand what’s going on across those areas in Alberta and, really, prepare ourselves and get ourselves all on the same page so that we can fight back effectively against the regressive agenda of this government.

Kate: Joel, thank you so much for joining us here on this mini episode of The Alberta Advantage. Is there anything that we didn’t get to, or that I didn’t ask, [outro music fades in] that you think is really important that our listeners know about public education and the attacks on it?

Joel: No, I think we covered a lot today. I really appreciate your time and the opportunity to be here.

Kate: Amazing.

Kate: The Alberta Advantage is supported by listeners like you. Independent listener-supported media like this podcast is possible only thanks to the generous support of our listeners. If you think what we do is important, please head over to patreon.com/albertaadvantage and support our work with a monthly donation.

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