Over the past few days, in the midst of headlines about the unprecedented public response to the murder of George Floyd , the POTUS showing ever increasing evidence of mental instability , and the ever present COVID updates, it was easy to miss a small announcement out of Alberta that may have a fairly major impact on Canada’s public education system. On Thursday of May 28th, the United Conservative Party introduced a piece of legislation onto the floor of province house, which, when enacted, could be a complete post COVID 19 game changer. The new “Education Choice Act” not only eases restrictions on the establishment of charter schools in Alberta, it actually encourages their expansion.
By way of context, a charter school is one that is set up by a group of individuals, as opposed to a government body, to serve the needs of a specific group of children. The school must present a charter, essentially a declaration of how it will do business, to government for approval. Once approved, charters set up a system that offers an alternative to public education, but that is funded with tax payers money. Parents can choose to send their children, free of charge, to either institution, although charter schools often charge higher fees than public ones. Alberta is the only province in Canada that allows for charter schools which, up to now, have been tightly regulated. Under Kenney, it would seem, that is all about to change.
The theory behind charter schools is as simple as it is appealing. Quoting a line from the Declaration of Human Rights, which reads “parents have a priori right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children”, the Premier spoke of how the new legislation “…enshrines the belief of Albertans in freedom, diversity, pluralism and choice as well as parental responsibility”, and dismissed those who might oppose the idea as “special interest” groups. He finished by stating that his government was moving forward with this because “we believe that parents know better than politicians or bureaucrats about what’s in the best interests of their kids.”
The way in which the UCP has gone about convincing Albertans that this is exactly what they want was rather textbook. The government started with that now oh-so-common public survey, which they designed, distributed and, of course, interpreted once they were done. Then, once over 50,000 Albertans responded, the government analyzed the data and, not surprisingly, arrived at a result that the UCP had wanted in the first place.
Kenney has been speaking about the expansion of charter schools since long before his election, so it should come as no surprise that the data collected “by the UCP, for the UCP” should arrive at a conclusion that supported his ideals. Indeed, the survey even went so far as to exclude almost 2400 responses submitted by a group called “Support our Students, Alberta” (SOS) on behalf of citizens very much against the expansion of charter schools. Calling this effort to rally public support behind public schools an attempt to “hijack the survey”, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange made no apologies for excluding the responses. Indeed, the Premier lauded the new legislation specifically because it would prevent such organizations from “undermining” the rights of Albertans to choose charters over public.
The most entertaining bit of chicanery in all of this is found in the data itself. On the landing page of the “Choice in Education” website, the government has proudly printed that a full 62% of respondents indicated they were happy with the amount of educational choice already available in the province. The casual observer might presume that if 62% are satisfied, then 38% are not; a fairly sizable minority. However, according to the results, only 17% of the respondents indicated they were dissatisfied. The rest who were not satisfied responded that they either didn’t know or didn’t care. Taken together, a full 83% of the province indicated they were content with the status-quo, even with the exclusion of the SOS results.
I am not exactly sure how expanding the charter school model because of the wishes of 17% of the population can be interpreted as anything other than responding to special interests, but perhaps I am missing something.
Charter school advocates fall into two very broad categories. The first are parents with concerns about the capacity of the public education system to serve the needs of their own children. These parents want the best for their kids, (as we all do), come from a place of relatively secure socio-economics, and are, themselves, fairly well educated. They see no harm in developing a competitive model to public education, and often see charter schools as an augmentation to the public system, which they are convinced is failing.
The second group comes from the libertarian school of thought that all public entities should be privatized, and are often connected to organizations like “The Fraser Institute”, “The Canadian Taxpayers Federation” and “The Alberta Institute”. Part of a massive global network called The Atlas Network, they believe that markets, not governments should determine the relative success of any enterprise, including education. They believe schools should compete for kids, that teachers should be paid based on how well their students do on standardized tests, and that tax payers dollars are much more effective in the hands of private entrepreneurs than in the hands of government.
They also spend a great deal of effort convincing the first group that there is no harm in developing a competitive model to public education, that charter schools can augment the public system, and that the public system is, indeed, failing.
Now, none of those ideas are true, tending to fall apart under even the lightest scrutiny. However, in this day and age, it seems that the truth, or the opinion of 83% of a population, doesn’t matter. Kenney says Alberta wants more charter schools, so that is what is going to happen.
Albertans certainly don’t need some commentator from the East Coast telling them about their economic reality right now. The West, perhaps more than anywhere else in the country, will be feeling the economic effects of COVID for a very long time. But what Kenney has done here is that he has opened the door for private enterprise to swoop in and take the financial burden of public education off his government’s shoulders at the exact moment that relief to the public coffers would be most welcome.
A quick review of the tale of Pandora may well be in order for everyone who currently resides in Wild Rose country.