Alberta, Canada: Long Chartering Wait Lists—Why?

The answer is simple: the 13 charter schools in Alberta, Canada have strong records of achievement and innovation. Parents want many more charter schools. But politics and policies prevent growth.

Sound familiar to your state? Probably. Yet I observed unusual differences when I keynoted the Alberta Charter Schools Conference last month that may help generate a path for growth in the future.

Let’s start with the history. Chartering came to Alberta in 1994 due to advocacy of a small group of citizens and one influential Education Minister. Albertans tell me they obtained a copy of Minnesota’s chartering law from Ted Kolderie, Minnesota’s “godfather” of chartering, who once again appearsconnected to nearly every new branch of chartering. The citizens worked with Alberta’s Education Minister Halvar Jonson, who almost single-handedly championed the chartering policy in Alberta. There was, however, little involvement then (or since) by provincial legislators (MLAs). The chartering policy established over 20 years ago has been pretty much “grandfathered in” to today, even though the government was Conservative throughout that time.

The chartering policy was capped at 15 schools. Thirteen schools are long established, and two more in the pipeline in the next 2-3 years will fill the cap when opened. Despite huge waiting lists, parents are discouraged from creating new schools, as there is no room to grow.

Even the 13 existing schools had to overcome extraordinary barriers. In Alberta, a new charter school applicant must first go to the local school district. If rejected by the district, the applicant may request approval from the provincial government. While this is a tedious process in itself, here’s the unusual twist: the district does not serve as a charter school authorizer. Instead, if the district likes the applicant’s proposal, the district can adopt it as its own and implement it within the umbrella of district controls. Charter school autonomy is lost. So why would anyone go through such a risky process?

And yet 13 charter schools not only survived this process, they are thriving. As Dr. Phil Butterfield described in his provincial research paper entitled “The Politics of Educational Reform: the Story of Charter School Experiment Twenty Years Later,” to be published shortly, positive outcomes of Alberta charter schools include student achievement, innovative practices, competition/choice, and parental satisfaction.

So why do I see a path for future growth? First, lengthy waiting lists exist even though chartering is still relatively unknown in Alberta or Canada. There are only 9,000 spaces for charter school students, less than 1% of the student population. Generally, charters have performed well—showing results above the provincial average. There is little negative generated by chartering results. While opponents continue to engage in myths of chartering, the Alberta Association has almost a “blank slate” to educate the broader public about chartering. That isn’t usually the case in the states!

Second, there recently was a total reversal in provincial electoral politics that creates a future of both opportunity and uncertainty for everyone. I was delighted that 6 MLAs attended my keynote address about the Pioneering Charter School Story and Dispelling the Myths of Chartering. And the Association is well-positioned to take on the challenge.

Next week: Is there a future for chartering in Canada? What can we learn from our Canadian neighbors?