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Canada West Foundation Blog

Can charter schools make Canada’s education system the best in the world?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Innovation in Action: An Examination of Charter Schools in Alberta

Lately I’ve had the opportunity to talk to people about what we need to do to ensure that Canada is a great place to live in the years to come. People have all kinds of answers ranging from market diversification to improved social policies. One consistent answer, though, one that comes up from everyone regardless of where they live or work, is education. In an increasingly competitive world we need to have the best education system in the world.

The reality is that Canadian education is currently pretty good, but no one can suggest it is as good as it could be. The question becomes how we can make it better. We could tinker with the mechanics of the current system by changing the education year from 10 months a year to 11 months, for example, or we could completely upset the current system by adopting a system of school vouchers.

One solution – which is somewhere between these two extremes and has been adopted in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the province of Alberta – is the introduction of charter schools. Charter schools are autonomous public schools that can focus on certain groups of students or a particular education strategy. Their autonomy allows them to hire their own teachers and run innovative programming without charging tuition or restricting access.

In Alberta there are currently 13 charter school authorities. They enroll more than 7,000 students including academically capable underachievers, at-risk street students, academically gifted, all girls, artistic oriented, and more. These students, and their schools, have done well. A recent government report found that charter schools are outperforming their counterpart schools in the traditional public education system. This is impressive when you consider that Alberta students already outperform all other Canadian students in every metric of learning (PISA).

Canada West Foundation has just released a report that also finds that charter schools have succeeded in encouraging innovation and competition. These innovations have led to schools of choice and increased development of alternative programming, allowing students and parents to choose the best school, and the best program, for them. Increased competition has encouraged educators to invest in their students and in technology in order to be the best school rather than the default school.

These findings suggest that charter schools could hold great appeal to parents and students if similar models were adopted outside of Alberta. Charter schools can be part of the solution to the problem of how to make Canadian education the best in the world.

If you want to learn more about charter schools in Alberta, including why they were implemented, how they’ve done and some of the challenges are for the future, check out my report Innovation in Action: An Examination of Charter Schools in Alberta.

Shawna Ritchie is a Policy Analyst with Canada West Foundation.

Posted By: Shawna Ritchie