Fraser Forum

Charters schools: outside the school board behemoth

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A recent article in the National Post raised the specter of colossal school boards in Canada, particularly in big cities such as Toronto and Vancouver, and the bloated bureaucracies that consume taxpayer money with seemingly little benefit to students.

The article noted a recent Fraser Institute study on charter schools, which exist in Alberta and are prevalent in the United States, and typically operate outside the centralized school board model.

Some history. Minnesota was the first U.S. state to introduce charter school legislation, in 1991. As of 1994, a total of 11 U.S. states had passed charter school legislation. Alberta introduced its charter school legislation in 1994, bringing the total number of jurisdictions with charter school laws to 12. By 1999, an additional 25 U.S. jurisdictions had introduced charter school legislation, bringing the total number of provinces and states (plus D.C.) with such laws to 37. As of 2015, a total of 42 states (as well as the District of Columbia) have introduced and implemented charter school legislation.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics, in 1999/00, total enrolment in charter schools in the U.S. was 339,678. Enrolment steadily grew to 2,267,814 in 2012/13.

However, in contrast to the growth observed in the U.S., Alberta remains the only province that permits the establishment and operation of charter schools in Canada. In 1999/00, total enrolment in charter schools in Alberta was 2,073. This figure grew steadily every year, except for a small decline in 2011/12, reaching 8,418 in 2012/13 (see chart below).

More specifically, the share of the school-aged population attending charter schools in Alberta almost tripled, increasing from 0.4 per cent in 1999/00 to 1.4 per cent in 2012/13. Meanwhile, the share of the school-aged population in the U.S. attending charter schools more than quadrupled, increasing from 0.8 per cent in 1999/00 to 4.4 per cent in 2012/13.

Put differently, the United States’ share of the school-aged population attending charter schools in 2012/13 was 3.2 times greater than the comparable share in Canada (Alberta). It’s worth noting two explanations for the divergence in charter school enrolment in the two jurisdictions. First, the United States experienced pronounced growth in the number of states allowing charter schools, while Alberta remains the only province to allow such school choice in the public system in Canada. Second, many U.S. states with charter school legislation experienced marked growth in enrolment while Alberta has maintained a cap on the number of charter schools and, consequently, the number of charter school students.

It is time to consider alternatives to bloated bureaucratic structures in the delivery of education. Perhaps the charter school model—or, even better, an updated twenty-first century version of schools that are funded for being accountable to their chartered mandates—deserves more attention.


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