Alberta’s Charter School Success

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

The charter school movement continues to rack up an impressive record of improvement to public education. While many see them as private or independent schools, charter schools are, in fact, bona fide public schools, funded by government but granted the freedom to operate outside the traditional public system. They are governed by a “charter” that sets out clear goals and objectives for the organization, usually focused on academic achievement. A common misunderstanding is that these schools are allowed to cherry-pick their students. In fact, they must take all comers.

A recent Frontier Policy Forum co-sponsored with the Faculty of Education and St. John’s College, featured a remarkable man — the associate director of the Canadian Charter School Centre in Calgary. Henry Zondervan spoke about Alberta’s very preliminary experiment with public school charters, the only place in Canada where they’ve been allowed, and laid out an extraordinary scenario.

At his own school where he is the principal, called the Foundation for the Future charter academy, the kids are zooming ahead in test scores. The province mandates that at least 15% of public school students achieve an “excellent” rating, but Zondervan’s charges are approaching 85%. In each calendar year, the students are covering on average one-and-a-half grade levels. This means that by grade 8 they are achieving scholastically at the equivalent level of grade 12 in the regular public system. Naturally, thousands of parents have their children on the school’s waiting list for admission, and the school is expanding.

Why the stunning success? It’s due to the flexibility allowed in the charter school format. “All students can learn,” Zondervan maintains. “All students can get an A grade with proper teaching processes.” It’s a matter of getting the barriers out of the way. Charter schools are more responsive to parents than traditional school boards. They have more freedom to innovate with curricula, to hire teachers and reward them for results and to allocate resources outside the bureaucratic maze that characterizes the regular public system. It is no coincidence that teachers in a performance-focused charter school system earn more than their regular system counterparts.

A German scholar, Ludger Woessmann of the Kiel Institute of World Economics, has published an analysis of educational efficiency in 39 countries. He shows that, although the price of public schooling accelerated quickly in most developed countries between 1970 and 1994, the average performance of pupils remained constant at best. In Canada, we spend 7% of our GNP on education (highest in the G7 nations) while the performances of our students is mediocre, according to a recent report by the Council of Ministers of Education and Statistics Canada. High academic achievement, the study concludes, depends on close attention to test results, school control over staff and operations, teacher discretion over teaching methods and competition from private schools.

This description neatly mirrors the charter school model in America. Joe Nathan pioneered the first one in Minnesota in 1991, and ten years later 2,100 have opened their doors in 38 states to half a million children. Why are they so popular? A Hoover Institute task force on K-12 education points the finger at the oddity of public schools with high costs but poor student progress. “Competition,” the Hoover group concludes, “encourages educators to identify the best practices and helps parents choose the best schools.” Zondervan’s experience in Calgary confirms this thesis, as does that of state after state. Among the latest to report are Michigan, Florida and Texas, where charter schools have demonstrated strong gains in test scores.

Lamentably, Manitoba’s public school establishment remains utterly uninterested in the concept. It has resisted such progressive ideas as performance measurement, testing, and concepts like merit pay. To be fair, in any monopoly process and rules count more than results. The one-size-fits-all theology has other problems, besides high costs; suffocating regulation, school boards prone to learning fads and teachers tightly controlled and suppressed by overweening unions. When public schools try to be all things to all people, they fail in their core mission, good teaching and high student achievement.

In December, the American Economic Review published Schooling, Labor-Force Quality, and the Growth of Nations, which confirms the results of earlier such studies. The amount of money dedicated to schooling is much less important than the content of the curriculum. Countries that stress high academic standards grow more quickly than those who simply toss more cash into the system.

In other words, if we want to maintain or improve our standard of living, we’ve got to have excellent schools. Competition from charter schools will help make that possible.