School Choice: The Safer Alternative

Commentary, COVID-19, Education, Janis Nett

The COVID-19 pandemic has morphed from a public health issue into a political hot potato, riddled with fear and confusion, not excluding the education sector. The game’s key players are politicians, unions, and advocacy groups, leaving students and their parents, education employees, and the general public as spectators, feeling anxious and disillusioned.

Alberta’s Education Minister, in collaboration with Dr. Deena Hinshaw, medical professionals, and research analysts, released a reasonable and detailed school re-entry plan. Most noteworthy is the autonomy given to individual school boards to create plans that reflect their local situation. A one-size-fits-all policy rarely works, especially in education amidst a pandemic.

Mr. Jason Shilling, president of the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA), who understands the diversity in individual schools and school districts, responded with much scepticism but accurately pointed out that parents and community members will now need to hold their elected school trustees accountable for consequences.

The NDP Opposition Education critic Sarah Hoffman offered up a simple solution: burden taxpayers with $1B in additional funding and cap class sizes at 15 students. The government’s unwillingness to do so is the “epitome of laziness”. Interestingly, the ATA supports the opposition critics’ idea to cap classrooms to 15 students but fails to acknowledge the current state of Alberta’s overcrowded schools. 

Thousands of Alberta’s children will be returning to school in a few weeks. With no crystal ball in hand, hopes and prayers abound that all will be well, however, the planning of quality education programming centred around student needs and safety must continue, post-pandemic. The silver lining is the present opportunity to embrace innovation and consider cost-saving solutions, meanwhile creating meaningful and impactful learning centres through school choice.

School choice in Alberta is defined as public, Catholic, and Francophone (100% funded), charter schools (100% funded), independent schools (70% funded), and home education programs. There is extensive comprehensive research outlining the benefits of school choice alternative education programming.

The research highlights $1.9 billion in taxpayer savings, debunks the myth that school choice creates a two-tier education system, catering exclusively to the wealthy, and provides evidence of improved learner outcomes. What is not included in recent research is how school choice naturally leads to safer schools, an area worthy of future scholarly consideration.

The inability to practise social distancing in most of Alberta’s classrooms is the kryptonite behind the ATA and NDP claims that schools are unsafe for re-entry unless class sizes are reduced to 15 students. Enter the charter school.

Charter schools are autonomous, nonprofit, publicly funded schools that provide a uniquely defined approach to learning styles, teaching methodologies, and education philosophies. The ‘charter’ is an innovative approach, based on research, that is intended to support targeted needs, thus improving the education system as a whole. Charter schools employ Alberta certified teachers who do not have to be members of the ATA.  Charter schools implement Alberta approved curriculum with stringent financial reporting and regulatory compliance. Charter schools are not responsible to an elected board rather they report directly to the education ministry.

It is estimated that it costs approximately $13,000 to educate an individual student for one year. These costs include instruction, operations and transportation, and program support. These funds follow the student. Due to the unique nature of a charter school, class sizes are typically smaller than their public school counterparts. The freedom to customize their infrastructure to support the charter’s philosophy and educational approach proves to be an additional benefit. Charter schools are not limited to the typical ‘schoolhouse’ style and can operate out of existing vacant buildings.

There is no doubt that Alberta classrooms are overcrowded and it is preferable to have lower teacher-pupil ratios. Perhaps a cost-saving solution is not to immediately invest in new school projects rather invest in more charter schools where programming is targeted, innovative, and the naturally small class sizes allow for proper social distancing, providing enhanced health safety for students and teachers.

Additionally, charter schools reflect the fundamental right and freedom for parents to choose an education program that best suits their children’s needs, therefore creating an education system that has the potential to truly accommodate the diverse needs in our student population.

 

 

Janis Nett, B.Ed; M.Ed, MPA, is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

Photo by halfpoint