The 2005-2006 school year is well underway. Underway long enough for parents and teachers alike to experience the effects—negative or positive—of a monopolistic education system. For some, the “one shoe fits all” suffices, while for others it provides a system that doesn’t suit their beliefs of what an education system should look like. At this time of year, parents begin to review options or choices—if there are choices—for schooling their children for the next year.
Choice is a parent’s or student’s right to choose a school outside the conventional public school system. Choice in schooling—what are the choices? What are your choices in your province? In British Columbia? In Saskatchewan? In Ontario? In the Maritimes? In Alberta? Are parents aware of their choices? Do they have any choices? How easy is it for parents to send their children to the schools that they—the parents—believe will best educate their children?
In Canada there is no common national education system. However, there is only one common, publicly funded option available to parents: a provincially regulated conventional public education system. There is an exception—Alberta. What makes Alberta different?
Alberta publicly funds conventional public schools, charter public schools, private schools, catholic public schools, and independent schools including Christian schools. Alberta ranks number one in school choice; it also, however, has the highest student/educator ratio. The per-capita income in Alberta is higher than other provinces, although it lags behind British Columbia, Quebec, Manitoba and Ontario relative to spending per full-time equivalent student (Statistics Canada).
According to Alberta Education, when it comes to selecting a school, parents and students can choose from a wide range of options. They can select from public schools, Catholic schools, francophone schools, private schools, and charter schools. They can also access a number of unique and innovative programs–including home education, online/virtual schools, outreach programs and alternative programs. Parents can also opt to home school their children. Choice is one of the important principles Alberta’s education system is built on (www.gov.ab.ca).
In spite of a desire among parents for more choice, many provinces are reluctant (actually refuse) to break the mold and provide parents with options other than a conventional public system. A 2005 survey conducted by University of British Columbia sociologists Neil Guppy et al., Parent and Teacher Views on Education: A Policymaker’s Guide
More than eight out of ten Quebec parents felt there was sufficient choice, whereas in the Atlantic povinces and in B.C. and the Territories, more than four out of ten parents felt there was not sufficient choice. Parents with children in lower-income neighbourhood schools felt more choice should exist. Teachers (64%) were more likely than parents (57%) to agree that sufficient information existed to help families make informed educational choices.
The Edmonton-based Community-University Partnership for the Study of Children, Youth, and Families found that parents and students who were able to exercise school choice appeared to be very satisfied with their schooling.
Why are choices important to parents and their children? Let’s consider Alberta to review what is possible through school choice. On national and international standardized student achievement assessments, Alberta ranks number one in Canada and at or near the top among 41 countries which participated in the assessments. (Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, available at www.cmec.ca).
Reviewing one option—charter public schools—a Compas Opinion and Market Research poll reported in 2001 that 71% of parents nationally would like to have charter public schools as an option. Alberta is the only province offering charter public schools as a choice. Alberta also provides more funding to support parents and educational systems other than conventional public schools.
Research conducted in 2003 by J. da Costa, F. Peters, and C. Violato revealed that students attending charter public schools demonstrated higher achievement than students attending conventional public schools. Morrison (2003), daCosta and Peters (2003) and Bosetti (2000) found that satisfaction rates among charter parents were higher than in conventional public systems. These findings are consistent with the long waiting lists to get into charter public schools in Alberta. However, lack of resources, extensive volunteer time commitments, legislation or lack thereof, and possibly most importantly lack of political will are obstacles to implementing charter public schools.
So does choice exist in our provinces? Factors such as distance of residences from schools, family and community characteristics, government legislation, funding, school governance, political and economic conditions, social climate, transportation, availability of program information and parental involvement influence whether parents’ and students’ rights to choice in schooling is real.
Dr Darlene G. Garnier is Executive Director of the Canadian Charter Schools Centre.