“Nova Scotian kids aren’t getting access to the educational choices they deserve.”
So begins the latest attempt by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies to convince Nova Scotians of the benefits of that wonderful and glowing panacea for all that ails public education, the Charter School System.
Penned by soon to be Atlantic Chair of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, Paige MacPherson, this succinct summation of our system is part of a recent media awareness campaign from AIMS, which goes on to say how both Premier McNeil and Education Mininster Zach Churchill should take heed of a new report from AIMS on the subject of charter schools. Indeed, MacPherson states “A new report from the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) shows charter schools have been successful in Alberta for more than two decades, and could deliver big benefits for Nova Scotian students.”
The report to which MacPherson refers, entitled “An Untapped Potential for Educational Diversity” was actually written by MacPherson herself, so it should perhaps not come as a surprise that she should sing its praises. It is also of some interest that this model has not just been presented as a solve-all for Nova Scotian schools. In fact, MacPherson wrote to the both the Newfoundland Telegram and the PEI Guardian explaining how her ideas could fix the educational woes of those respective provinces.
As far as examining the source of all the excitement, MacPherson herself takes time in the introduction of the report to thank Peter Cowley and Deani VanPelt for their assistance on the project, both of whom work for what is arguably Canada’s most influential, and not inconsequentially, right-wing think tank, The Fraser Institute. MacPherson’s resume also includes writing for a group called Canadian for Affordable Energy, which is primarily focused on promoting the interests of big oil. (Another feature author of this group is Matthew Lau, whose own publication list includes such awe-inspiring titles as “Unions don’t deserve a labour Day celebration; They hurt workers more than they help” and the ever popular “If women are really paid so much less, why would anyone hire men?”)
It would seem big city lobbying has finally arrived in our little neck of the woods.
Putting MacPherson’s professional associations aside for a moment, although the report may be new, the idea of establishing charter schools in the Atlantic Provinces is not. AIMS has been on this particular bandwagon for over 20 years now. Way back in 1997, just after the government of Alberta opened its doors to the charter school movement, AIMS published a position paper entitled “Charter Schools in Atlantic Canada; An Idea Whose Time Has Come” which also trumpeted the idea.
Much like the latest AIMS offering, that particular piece wrote about how, since schools in Atlantic Canada were “lagging behind” the rest of the country, the Alberta model was one to be emulated, at least to some extent. In those days, AIMS complained that the Alberta model was too restrictive, with that province offering up the lion’s share of charters to “boutique” schools, which serviced “disaffected teenagers, the handicapped, etc…”. They called for a “no limits” approach to the number of charter schools that could open in Atlantic Canada.
Now, when it comes to examining charter schools, some context is usually helpful. In their simplest forms, charter schools offer an alternative to public education. They can be opened by groups of individuals who share a common view on what is educationally valuable, and can be set up specifically to promote such things as the arts, or perhaps the sciences. These groups must create a set of guiding principles (the charter) and are held accountable for adhering to those principles by some licensing body. Charter schools are funded by the public in a similar fashion to regular schools, that is, on a per student ratio. Every student who enrolls in a charter school comes with the same amount of public funding that would be allotted to their local public institution. In Alberta, charter schools must teach the prescribed provincial curriculum, can not refuse students admission, can not charge tuition, and can not be religiously based.
All told, it sounds pretty sweet, right? So why in the name and honour of time would I be so darn opposed to the idea?
Well, first of all, let’s get rid of the rather large elephant in the room with the letters “NSTU” painted on its side. Charter schools do tend to be non-unionized, thus they can pay their teachers less money and offer fewer benefits. This does make them cheaper to run, and would fairly obviously make me, a self-proclaimed unionist, an opponent. As well, it should be noted that with each student who goes to the charter school, funding for the public system is reduced. This is means that as more money is channeled into the charter school, less goes to your local public one, making it able to offer fewer services. That would count, again fairly obviously, for this public education advocate as strike 2.
What is perhaps somewhat less obvious is that the idea for charter schools actually originated with unions. Back in 1988, American Union leader Albert Shanker had a vision for public education that involved giving teachers the power to open “schools within schools”. These would become hubs of educational innovation which would act as test spaces for new ways for approaching public education. These would be called “charter schools”. A mere five years late, Shanker denounced his own idea as a terrible one.
The reason for his about-face was simple. By 1993, the idea had been appropriated by the business community and was becoming nothing more than a tool by which private enterprise could gain control of public education, develop it as a for profit enterprise, and, according to Shanker, destroy teacher’s unions in the process.
Fast forward to the early 2000’s, and an educator by the name of Diane Ravitch was working as the Assistant Secretary of Education in the United States under then President George W. Bush. She was, in fact, one of the key architects of that administration’s educational reform movement, No Child Left Behind, which included a major emphasis on school choice and charter schools. By about 2009, Ravitch had also done a complete about-face, and is now one of the most outspoken advocates for the abolition of charter schools. Her major argument?
The movement was becoming nothing more than a tool by which private enterprise could gain control of public education, develop it as a for profit enterprise, and, according to Ravitch, destroy teacher’s unions in the process.
Now, to be fair, the charter school movement has seen little expansion in Alberta since its inception, (much to the chagrin of the Fraser Institute). However, the movement has become positively rampant stateside, under the encouragement of Donald Trump’s education secretary, Betsy Devos. According to a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, (written by the aforementioned Ravitch) approximately 40% of the charter schools in the US are now run by for-profit corporations. In some areas, that number has risen to as high as 80%.
Which of course begs the question that always results when I read AIMS’ take on public education. Why exactly, are folks like AIMS and the Canadian Tax Payers Federation so adamant that jurisdictions adopt the charter school model? I don’t presume to speak for either organization, but I would hazard a bet that it has little to do with the kids.
Lobbying for charter schools is nothing new for AIMS, nor is it for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, although certainly to a lesser extent.
However, for those public education advocates among us, seeing those two groups join forces to accomplish what amounts to a major step towards privatizing public education is a very troubling development indeed.
(Author’s note: The Atlantica Party has recently added its voice to those calling for a more privatized system. The sharks, it seems, smell blood in the water)