Students Shouldn’t Have to Wait for a Good Education

Canada, Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra

People say that “good things come to those who wait.” Maybe they do.  But this saying is cold comfort to the families of more than 8000 children who are waiting to get into the most popular charter school in Calgary.

Foundations for the Future Charter Academy (FFCA) enrolls about 3000 students in its seven campuses across the city. While the school would like to accept more students, the government caps its enrolment. Meanwhile, families on the waiting list are left to wonder whether they will ever have the opportunity to get their kids into this school.

It isn’t hard to see why FFCA is popular. While regular public school administrators and school boards are largely under the sway of the latest edu-babble fads and failed progressive ideologies, FFCA encourages its teachers to use strategies that actually work. 

Among other things, this means teachers take charge of their classrooms and provide lots of teacher-directed instruction. In math class, students memorize their times tables, learn the standard algorithms for basic operations, and do lots of practice questions. In reading, FFCA teachers make regular use of phonics because of its proven effectiveness. Students learn proper grammar, receive regular homework assignments, and write a lot of tests.  Obviously, parents want their children to be able to calculate and read effectively.

While these traditional methodologies are very popular with most parents and some teachers, they are anathema in education faculties where teachers are trained. Education professors regularly encourage prospective teachers to be a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage.” In other words, the last thing they want is for teachers to provide a defined knowledge base and skill set to students. They downplay the importance of academic content and focus on social issues and the students’ self-esteem.

The influence of this failed ideology can be found throughout the public school system. Fuzzy math, invented spelling, no-zero policies, incomprehensible report cards, and lax discipline are only a few examples. Parents are fed up with how their neighbourhood public schools have been turned into laboratories for a never-ending succession of senseless fads. They want their children to receive a solid education, and consequently they flock to schools like FFCA.

At first glance, it seems surprising that schools like FFCA are not popping up across the country. Considering the pent-up demand for a back-to-basics education approach, there would be no shortage of students.

Unfortunately, despite all the lip service given to diversity, most public school boards are highly monolithic. With the notable exception of Edmonton Public Schools, school boards tend to control everything from teacher professional development to the textbooks used in class, leaving local school principals to simply implement board directives. Also, school boards don’t like it when students try to attend schools outside their designated catchment areas, and they throw up as many road blocks as possible. It is not surprising that public school principals usually fall in line.

If it wasn’t for the Alberta charter school legislation, passed in 1994, FFCA wouldn’t exist today. Charter schools are public schools that operate outside the jurisdiction of public school boards. Like other public schools, they are non-sectarian, open to all students, and do not charge fees. However, their autonomy makes it possible for them to offer courses and programs, such as basic math and English, which simply do not exist in public school boards. Hence, FFCA’s back-to-basics approach is serving the needs of students.

While charter schools are common in the United States, Alberta is the only province that allows them to exist. As a result, FFCA won’t be opening up sister branches in other parts of the country, no matter how much demand there is. Even in Alberta, charter schools don’t exactly have it easy. The government only allows 15 charter schools to exist at a time, and it makes each school re-apply for a charter every 5 years.  The government also caps enrolment at each school so they cannot expand to take in more students.

Charter schools, like FFCA, have proven their worth to students and parents. If Alberta made it easier for new charter schools to exist and provided more support to the ones that do, fewer students would need to sit on a waiting list. As for the rest of the country, it’s time to follow Alberta’s example and allow charter schools a chance to revolutionize public education.