OP-ED: The (Canadian) National Post, July 30, 2004

Ontario Needs School Choice


WATERLOO, Ont. - Earlier this year, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty released the report of a blue ribbon panel on the role of government in society. Among its many recommendations was that the province bring in charter schools.

Charter schools are public schools that generally operate outside the local school board bureaucracy, free of the red tape that paralyzes regular public schools. They are, however, accountable to the government to deliver on the results they commit to in their charter. They receive the same amount of provincial funding as conventional public schools, and are free to all.

At present, the only Canadian province with charter schools is Alberta. And when school-choice legislation was introduced in 1994, its school boards saw them as a threat since they would operate outside board control.

The boards in Alberta's two biggest cities responded in different ways to the perceived threat.

In Calgary, officials responded by doing their best to lay down roadblocks—including turning down every charter school application they received. But because Alberta's legislation allows applicants to appeal to the province, a number of schools were able to receive their charter status despite the board's opposition.

Even then, the Calgary school board made it difficult for charter schools to gain access to unused school buildings. But the schools proved tenacious, and several have since flourished in the hostile soil. One charter school now has some 7,000 students on its waiting list.

As a result of the new schools—combined with several other factors, including a dysfunctional administration—the Calgary public board began to experience declining enrollment. So in a bid to win back students, it decided to offer its own school-choice plan.

Not coincidentally, many of the newly created schools resemble existing charter schools. To match the charter Calgary Girls School, for instance, the Calgary public board now offers an all-girls school. Likewise the public school that mimics the Calgary Science School, and the two that are modeled after the Foundations for the Future Charter Academy.

The Edmonton Public School Board, which had already adopted a policy of school choice, protected its turf in a different way. In the face of the new charter school legislation, it resolved to offer a wide array of excellent programs and schools so that charter schools wouldn't be able to get a toehold in the area. Today, more than 30 different options are offered by the board—including Christian schools, a Canadian studies school, a Jewish school, a sports school, a dance school, and many more.

What both cities' experiences demonstrate is that most monopoly providers prefer to avoid competition, even though it is inherently good for consumers. That's why responsible governments have policies that limit monopolies, and why charter schools—along with other government-funded school choices in Alberta—have resulted in improved educational service for all students.

A recent study found Alberta's charter schools to be, on average, 30% more effective than conventional public schools at improving student achievement on provincial language arts and math tests over a five-year period—a particularly impressive figure considering the province's students already lead the pack on interprovincial comparisons of student achievement. The same study also found high levels of parent and teacher satisfaction.

Another benefit of charter schools is that they attract children from diverse backgrounds. Neighbourhood schools tend to be defined according to local income levels and culture. But charter schools attract students from all walks of life, since parents choose them on the basis of educational orientation rather than geographical or financial factors.

In fact, Alberta does a particularly good job of educating students from less-privileged backgrounds. Although it is not immune to the well-established connection between socio-economic background and academic achievement, the relationship is weaker there than in many other provinces, including Ontario. In part, that's probably due to the several fine charter schools dedicated to at-risk students and their copycat board-run schools; it also likely stems from the fact that many other schools offer programs that are well-suited to disadvantaged students.

Private education is available only to those families who can afford it, but charter schools offer a democratic (and very Canadian) compromise. Like private schools, they have the potential to offer superb, tailor-made education; the difference is that they are available to everyone.

Charter schools are a low-cost measure that would both raise student achievement and be very popular with parents. If Mr. McGuinty is looking for ways to improve student learning in Ontario, it's hard to think of a more desirable innovation.

Malkin Dare is the president of; the Society for Quality Education (www.societyforqualityeducation.org).; A free DVD that profiles three Calgary charter schools is available by calling 888-856-5535.

© National Post 2004

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