Lessons for U.S. Chartering from our Canadian Neighbors

During my recent visit to the board of directors meeting and provincial conference of The Association of Alberta Public Charter Schools, I was intrigued by two features of chartering not often found in the U.S. With a conference theme of “Beyond Walls, Beyond Borders,” we too can learn from our neighbors.

First, all charter schools in Alberta are required to have a “superintendent.” While I’m not a fan of the policy mandate, I was delighted to see how schools adapted to that structure. The superintendent does not have to be full time. Some serve part-time, even as little as quarter-time. And the superintendent often brings a wealth of wisdom for the charter school as it deals with strategic and operations issues. This is a model that may work for other charter schools.

What I love even more is that many charter school superintendents are retired district superintendents, with long-term experience. What a way to bridge the charter and district divide! These well-regarded district leaders are giving back to the smaller charter schools, and in turn, they are learning chartering first-hand. They create a natural network to inform their former district colleagues about chartering.

The second feature is that by law, charter schools must engage in research that can be shared with all public schools. (Should this not be a requirement of all public schools?) A feature of each meeting of the Association is presentation of chartering research and innovation initiatives. Now that truly aligns with the origins of chartering.

Dr. Phil Butterfield describes the evolution of chartering in Alberta this way:

Generation 1: Chartering is about choice, parental satisfaction, and community.

Generation 2: Chartering is the center of research and innovation for all public schools, moving the focus from market ideology (competition) to collaboration.

Amen! It may be this last point that will allow chartering to spread beyond the borders of Alberta to the rest of Canada. I was curious why chartering hasn’t spread around the country. The answer, in part, is that there is no federal Canadian role in education—it is distinctly provincial. In the U.S., President Bill Clinton used the federal government to incentivize chartering in the states through start up funding and facilities financing support. So creating a national conversation in Canada is more difficult.

Perhaps research and success stories about chartering will help spread the word to MLAs (legislators) in other provinces. I hope so. All we need are a few chartering champions in other provinces, armed with good facts and great stories.

Check out Thursday’s blogpost for one great Canadian story.