LINDSEY BAKER

More Choice, Less Education

Alberta now offers more school options—alternative, charter, private—than any other province. But at what cost?

By Mike Sadava

Dale Ladouceur, whose daughter Ramsay is in Grade 2 at Coronation Elementary School in Edmonton, took on a job last year that was unknown to previous generations of Albertans—generating press coverage for a public school. Dealing with the media sounds like a job for a corporate communications officer rather than for a member of a school’s parent advisory council. But Ladouceur and other parents spent hundreds of hours in an effort to get good coverage for Coronation, all in the hope of enticing more families to choose their school.

Like dozens of other schools in central Edmonton, Coronation was “under review” by the Edmonton Public School Board. That didn’t necessarily mean closure, but the threat was in parents’ minds. It was a case of “use it or lose it.” Ladouceur scripted radio ads, which ran on four local stations and province-wide on CKUA. She helped design flyers that were sent to 10,000 homes. She organized photo shoots and posters and even got a filmmaker to shoot a documentary about Coronation. The Alberta Lottery Fund financed the publicity, which cost thousands of dollars. 

“I worked full time on it, time not spent on [generating] income for my family,” says Ladouceur, a professional musician. “If you want your school to survive, this is what you have to do. It’s not just being media savvy—you have to be a media warrior.”

Public education in Alberta used to be a universal, one-size-fits-all service, with kids attending school with their neighbours, no matter their race, creed, class or level of intelligence. Schools reflected the diversity of their surrounding communities, and students were given the knowledge and tools they needed to become citizens in a pluralistic society. But since the Ralph Klein era (1992–2006), Alberta’s K–12 education system has changed dramatically. Fewer and fewer Alberta kids attend school in their home neighbourhood, more schools close every year and public education has increasingly become specialized, the students separated—by race, creed, class and level of intelligence. 

Welcome to Schools Inc., the new business model for K–12 education in Alberta, where “choice” is the buzzword both inside and outside the public system. The education system now follows a business model, with schools competing for students. As the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) describes Klein’s changes to education: “The assumption was that anything public institutions could do, private enterprise could do more efficiently and more effectively.” 

The ATA raises an important point. The problem with private enterprise is that it doesn’t usually have the public interest in mind. While “choice” may be good for individuals, it comes at the expense of diversity and community. Many public schools are in a Darwinian struggle for survival. The Edmonton Public School Board, for example, decided this spring to close five schools. A further 70 were put “under review.” Calgary’s public board, which shut down more than 30 schools in the past five years, has three more headed for extinction.

Many Albertans are opposed to seeing their local school shuttered, arguing that its closure will devastate the community. But other parents argue that the benefit of having a number of education options outweighs the benefit of having a diverse and close-knit community school. It’s estimated that half of all parents of school-aged children in Edmonton now choose to drive or bus their kids across town to a school that offers an alternative program or to charter or private schools.

 

Measures to increase school choice in Alberta started in the 1970s, when the Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB) was given permission by the government to institute “open boundaries” (parents could send their child to any school as long as there was room). In the late 1980s, the province amended the School Act to allow boards to establish “alternative education programs,” specializing in language, culture, subject, teaching philosophy and, most significantly, religion.

Since the Klein era, “choice” has become an even bigger priority for Alberta. Charter schools were legislated in 1994. For the 1996/1997 school year, the government legislated the removal of boundaries in all provincial school jurisdictions. Under Klein’s watch, the government took over taxing authority from the school boards and implemented an equalized assessment scheme (in which funding follows the student).

 Offering choice went from a low priority to a “supplemental priority” to a major priority of Alberta Education within a generation. Choice is now included as a primary goal in Alberta Education’s business plan for 2010–2013, which states that education should focus on “…opportunity, excellence, fairness, citizenship, choice and diversity.”

Open boundaries (est. 1996) require public schools to follow a business model, competing for students.

One might think that choice—and the competition that is its corollary—would be a good thing for education. Proponents of alternative, charter and private schools say choice encourages innovation, keeps teachers and principals on their toes and allows students to find the program best suited to them. Critics, however, see this trend as a transformation of education from service to commodity, and students as consumers of a product. In the end, they say, it skims the highest-achieving students from the more active families and fosters elitism—in effect, sacrificing the goals of fairness, citizenship and diversity for choice.

There have always been some options in Alberta, of course. Thousands of Alberta families choose to send their children to fee-charging private schools. Private schools have received some provincial funding for over 40 years, starting with $100 per student in 1967. In 2008 the province decided to increase the maximum level of private-school funding to 70 per cent (from 60 per cent) of the per-student funding received by public schools ($5,971), depending on teacher qualifications and “accountability measures” taken by the school. Although they teach less than 5 per cent of the province’s K–12 students, Alberta’s 149 private schools now comprise a big industry with provincial support, taking in $171-million from the $6-billion education budget. The private sector covers everything from athletics to alternative education, but most private schools focus on Christian education.

The number of Alberta students in private schools reached a peak at 16,732 five years ago, and has started to decline, according to the Association of Independent Schools and Colleges. But this doesn’t mean Albertans are switching back to general public education; private programs—many of them Christian—have been absorbed by public school boards. The result is the creation of “alternative” public schools.

“Alternatives” are popping up all over the province, but Edmonton has spearheaded the movement. While more than 80 per cent of Alberta’s charter students and many private schools are in Calgary, Edmonton Public decided to “head off” charters and privates by creating alternative schools under its aegis. Former EPSB superintendent Angus McBeath explained the board’s strategy in a 2003 speech to the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. “Let’s put the private schools out of business,” he said. “How will we do that? By offering parents alternative programs.” He noted that the number of private schools in Edmonton dropped to six as the EPSB absorbed private schools, “and the only reason there are six is we can’t figure out how to get the last six into our system… We’re targeting those schools.”

The result is a virtual smorgasbord of public schools—30 in total—from which Edmonton parents can choose. Jewish parents can send their children to Talmud Torah. Muslim families can send their kids to Grace Martin School, which provides “programming within the context of a holistic Islamic world view.” Parents of the next Taylor Hall can send their kids to one of two hockey schools. There are all-girl, mandarin Chinese, Ukrainian, military and fine arts schools—all under the public system.

Edgar Schmidt, EPSB’s current superintendent of schools, is a strong proponent of choice. Children learn in different ways, he says, so it makes sense to deliver education in different ways to give children a greater chance of success. “Fundamentally, choice is about what works for your child and your family,” Schmidt says. “It’s not about the notion of ‘shopping for schools.’ It’s not about choice as a consumer but a choice of where you can be most successful.” The EPSB has more alternative schools than any board in Canada, Schmidt says. 

Like his predecessor, he cites Edmonton’s relative lack of private schools as a mark of EPSB’s success (2,500 children receive a private education in Edmonton compared to 10,000 in Calgary). He adds that just about all of EPSB’s alternative programs share a building with a regular school, in effect creating two schools in one. This reduces segregation, he says, as the kids from the two schools can be together in activities such as intramural sports and recess. 

David King, executive director of the Association of Public School Boards of Alberta (APSBA) and the province’s minister of education in the latter half of the Peter Lougheed era (1979–1986), says that “choice” creates tension for school boards between their goal to deal with each child as an individual and the general aims of education to socialize children to be part of a diverse community. King says the emergence of alternative schools is not driven by competition per se, but by a desire within the public system to respond to a small number of parents who want a specific program. In fact, he says, the majority of Alberta parents are still happy with their neighbourhood school so long as it’s well run and has adequate resources.

“Alternative” schools are popping up all over the province. Edmonton has spearheaded the movement.

 King admits that schools lose role models and diversity when Jewish kids go off to Talmud Torah or the budding jocks go off to hockey school. He suggests that public schools offer a compromise. “School boards are inclined to say ‘we’d like as many kids as possible to be educated in the neighbourhood school, for diversity,’ ” he says. “But if parents and students have a passion for hockey or Hebrew, and would otherwise go to a private school, we will offer that within (public) schools.”

 

The idea of choice in the public school system has been controversial among academics and educators, many of whom are most concerned about the risk of elitism. In “Public Education as the Trojan Horse: The Alberta Case” (2004), David Flower of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives described “choice” as a trend that could eventually lead to privatization of the school system by piecemealing it and starving it of funds.

While alternative public schools can’t charge tuition (unlike private schools), they are allowed to charge higher fees than those for traditional programs. And Flower’s report notes that even before fees are taken into account, choice tends to lead to streaming according to social class. Alternatives tend to favour families most capable of making choices, and families with less money (or less awareness of their options) tend not to choose, ending up with the “dregs.”

Bruce Fuller and Richard Elmore, academics and co-authors of Who Chooses? Who Loses, note that if the propensity to choose is influenced by parents’ social class and educational background, then increasing choice will widen the social stratification of schools and the gap in student performance. In the end, “…even choice programs that are designed to increase educational opportunity could have the effect of further stratifying parents and students within groups that are already at a disadvantage in the existing structure.” This has a lot to do with the way markets operate—consumers have different abilities to choose, and even different knowledge about the fact that choices are available. Inevitably some parents are at a disadvantage, Fuller and Elmore argue.

Flower points out that alternative schools “…individually, become more concerned with their own continued existence than with the overall goal in a public education system of educating all children well. Fracturing the public education system in the name of ‘choice’ helps to undermine the totality and thereby makes it more vulnerable (to privatization).”

Carol Henderson, president of the ATA, says the proliferation of alternative schools “is not the road we would’ve gone down,” because they’re counter to the ideas of diversity and promotion of good citizenship, which should be central pedagogical goals. The ATA’s official position is that it “supports alternative schools and programs when they address learning needs and differences rather than religious, ethnic or socioeconomic differences.” Henderson believes that much of what attracts some parents to alternative schools, such as the teaching of religion in the classroom, should instead be done at home.

The public system has absorbed a number of private and charter schools recently. For instance, southern Alberta’s Palliser School Division recently took four private Christian schools in Calgary under its wing. The irony, however, is that the absorbed schools seem to change the public system more than it changes them.

“It’s a bit of a dilemma for us,” Henderson admits. The schools challenge the ATA’s traditional notion of public education. “But we would rather that [teachers are] brought under the [professional] code and are fairly paid.” The difference can be dramatic. When the Golden Hills board took over a Christian school in Three Hills, for example, teacher salaries almost tripled. 

Larry Booi of Public Interest Alberta and a former president of the ATA, says the “boutique approach” of some school boards, especially Edmonton Public, is by its nature exclusive and divisive. Although the school is supposed to be open to all, it’s unlikely that non-Christian kids will attend Millwoods Christian School, an alternative high school program with 700 students that started as a private school but was absorbed a decade ago by the EPSB. The school’s website contains fundamentalist doctrine, in such statements as: “We believe that the Bible is the Word of God, supernaturally given and inspired by God,” and “We believe in the hope of the return of Christ to receive the church and to judge the world in righteousness.”

To Booi, catering to specific religious beliefs or other narrow interests goes against the inclusiveness that’s supposed to be the foundation of public education, and in effect “allows private schools to masquerade as public schools.” Indeed, Alberta’s School Act says: “All education programs offered and instructional materials used in schools must reflect the diverse nature and heritage of society in Alberta, promote understanding and respect for others and honour and respect the common values and beliefs of Albertans.”

Booi has especially harsh words for International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, which he says are nothing more than “marketing to get high-end students.” IB, he says, is a costly exercise that eats up a lot of school board resources in terms of fees paid to write IB exams and for professional development. In the end, he says, the IB system does a poor job of serving the 80 per cent of Alberta’s K–12 students who don’t go to university. 

 

Still, the choices among Alberta’s public schools aren’t sufficient for some parents. Some choose to go outside the public system, to Alberta’s unique feature on the educational landscape—charter schools, which have been legislated since 1994. Alberta is the only province in Canada to have charter schools, which have their own board, aren’t allowed to charge tuition, can’t have a religious mandate and are subject to an agreement with the province (which must be periodically renewed) to provide education that is pedagogically and fiscally responsible. 

The charter school movement hasn’t grown as quickly as some forecast, with only 13 schools province-wide for a total enrolment of 7,000, 83 per cent of them in Calgary. These schools specialize in everything from at-risk youth to gifted students, from an all-girls school to a high-tech science school. Nevertheless, said former education minister Ron Liepert in 2007, “The experiment is over—charter schools are here to stay.”

A study by the Canada West Foundation (CWF) released early this year says that charter schools are not reaching their full potential to foster innovation in the education system, partly because the requirement that they periodically renew their agreement with the province denies them stability. “Without changes to legislation… asking charter schools to accomplish their full potential is the equivalent of clipping a bird’s wings and asking it to fly,” says the study, entitledInnovation in Action.”

Garry Andrews, executive director of the Association of Alberta Public Charter Schools, says there is general misunderstanding that charter schools are private in nature. In fact, he says, they are required by legislation to be public, although they are governed by independent boards. “There’s a misconception that charter schools are for the elite,” Andrews says. “In my experience, students who go to charter schools and [their] parents want a public education.” Many parents put their kids in charters because they want a specialized education, an emphasis on, say, science or music. Such emphases aren’t always offered by the public board.

The charter Calgary Science School was started in the mid-1990s by a group of parents and volunteers who felt that Calgary Board of Education (CBE) did not offer enough of a focus on science, especially in a hands-on manner, to students in Grades 4–9. Science School principal Darrell Lonsbury taught in the public system and thinks it has many strong schools and teachers. He thinks his school can be more responsive to the needs of its 600 students and their families, however, because it lacks the large administrative apparatus that come with big school districts. He adds that the Science School saved a school building in southwest Calgary from disuse. Clem Gardner elementary was down to 70 students, and when the school was closed by the CBE, the Science School took it over.

Lonsbury stresses that his charter school offers a public education. By law, it charges no tuition. A $450 school fee includes 24/7 use of a laptop by every student as well as field trips, including at least one overnight trip. As to charges of elitism, Lonsbury says his school serves students of all abilities, including kids with some learning disabilities. “We’re not skimming off the best and the brightest,” he says. “Our population is similar to the general population in the (public) schools out there.”

In the end, the system fosters elitismsacrificing fairness, citizenship and diversity for choice.

The CWF study, which supports charter schools, found some differences between parents who choose them and the general population. While the average Alberta annual family income is around $72,000, those who choose charter or alternative schools have family income that’s at least $12,000 higher. And over 21 per cent of charter school parents hold a university degree, compared to 14.8 per cent of “traditional school” parents.

The larger driver of change may not be alternatives or charters or privates at all. “The neighbourhood school is under threat,” APSBA’s Dave King says. “But it’s not because the idea of the neighbourhood school is weakening or disappearing. It’s because neighbourhoods [themselves] are weakening or disappearing.”

While Alberta’s older neighbourhoods still experience turnover—seeing baby boomers replaced by young families—demographics have changed, King says. Even after turnover, surplus spaces in inner city schools often remain. When King was in Grade 2 at Mount Royal School in northeast Edmonton during the 1950s, for example, the average Alberta family had 3.8 children. That number has gone down to 1.6 or 1.7. “The sense of community is being undermined by forces external to schools,” says King. “The school system is responding.”

The role of changing demographics can’t be discounted. But an Edmonton Journal story shows that something else—open boundaries, the lure of alternatives, charters, privates—is also driving school closures. EPSB’s Parkdale School is one of the 70 schools threatened with closure. According to the Journal, while 149 public elementary students live in the area, only 48 of them (or 32 per cent) attended Parkdale in 2009/2010. While 303 public junior high students live in the area, only 70 of them (or 23 per cent) attended Parkdale. Concluded the Journal: “If all 450 children living in Parkdale went to the big, brick neighbourhood school, it would be nearly full instead of facing closure.”

Edmonton Public says it is being forced by government to get rid of 30,000 surplus spaces. Minister of Education Dave Hancock says that the EPSB could run a deficit instead of closing schools. Many parents aren’t waiting for the board and the government to make up their minds about who—or what—is responsible for closures, arguing that if their kids are going to need to be bused out of their community anyway, they might as well choose a fine arts or language or sports school. 

 

Back at Coronation Elementary School, parents’ willingness to volunteer their time and work hard last year paid off (even if marketing came a bit unnaturally to them). The school population rebounded to 120 from a low of 86 just three years ago, and as a result, Coronation was removed from the list of schools under sustainability review.

But the parents who responded to Coronation’s campaign weren’t sold on the school’s inclusivity, diversity or intimate ties to the neighbourhood. Like 30 other Edmonton schools, Coronation now offers an alternative program—in this case, an IB program, only the second offered by an elementary school in the city. Coronation expects to attract kids from all over Edmonton, and has even been approved for busing because of the IB program.

As pleased as Dale Ladouceur is about saving Coronation, she feels for the families in the Edmonton communities who will lose their schools. “An active parent council and a big community turnout can make a difference,” she says. “But in most inner city schools the parents don’t have the time or resources. The people who need it the most get screwed.” 

Mike Sadava is a freelance writer and a former reporter for the Edmonton Journal. He lives in Edmonton.

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