Charter School Movement


In 1994, the Globe and Mail reported that question period in the Alberta legislature had turned into a “rowdy exchange.” Liberal leader Laurence Decore had requested that Premier Klein clarify his government’s vague reference to piloting charter schools in the speech from the throne. Klein responded that he was not exactly sure what a charter school was. The ensuing uproar forced the speaker to close the house. Premier Klein is not the only one that is a little fuzzy about charter schools. (Barlow, 204) Our class poll of Prince George citizens revealed that not many understand what a charter school is. In spite of his claim of ignorance, Klein’s government passed charter legislation in 1994, and at present eight charter schools are in operation in Alberta. Further, the Mike Harris government in Ontario has begun to investigate the viability of charter schools in spite of fervent opposition from school trustees and the Teacher’s unions. (Dube, A4)
Some say the charter movement in Canada is an attempt to allow for increased local participation in decision making, save money by cutting down on costly administration and foster innovation through competition. (Lawton, 23) Others insist it is part of the neo-liberal agenda to crush labour unions, and allow the market to operate unfettered without costly government intervention. These people contend that adoption of a market based system will lead to a two-tiered system of winners and losers and that those in greatest need of support will fall by the wayside. (Barlow, 202) Whichever way one wants to analyze the phenomena, it seems to be part of a larger trend of decentralization of government services. At present, over 60 countries are undergoing some form of decentralization. (Class Notes) The motives for this decentralization can be government attempts at cost-saving through elimination of functional overlap or an effort to satiate demands from local groups for greater control over services, accountability, and participation. Indeed when one looks at the charter school movement in other nations, one finds all of these factors at work.
In an attempt to illustrate these themes, I will look at the charter school movement in New Zealand and England . I will focus on some of the problems decentralization and charter schools create and attempt to provide some lessons that can be derived from these three countries’ attempts to improve their publicly funded school system. First however, I will outline the features of public school governance in Canada and then summarize the argument for charter schools.
Public School in Canada
In 1976, the OECD published a report on Canadian Public education. For the most part the report was laudatory in its description of Canada’s education system. However, the report contained a rather harsh criticism of the provincial governments’ claim that there was considerable autonomy at the local level. “It noted that provincial affirmations of local participation in education have an “insincere tone” given the predominant power of ministries of education in educational policy making and administration.” (Lightbody, 241)
While there are provincial variations in education administration, some universal patterns are evident. The provincial ministries of education are responsible for developing public education policy that will be implemented over their term in office. This is a jurisdiction granted them through the constitution. Across Canada the implementation of the provincial education policy is left up to an elected board of School trustees. Alberta is the only exception in that it has a board made up of both representatives whose role is exclusive to education and councilors who are responsible for public works, libraries etc.(242) Some of these elected boards are authorized to raise money through taxation while others must rely exclusively on government funding. Similar to the trend in municipal governance, even those that are capable of raising their own funding still depend heavily on government grants to operate(Class Notes and Lightbody, 263). This reliance on government funding is part of the redistributive process which allows for uniform opportunities regardless of differing districts financial resources. (In B.C., for instance, only two of the school districts in the province raise enough in tax revenue to cover their expenditures.) These boards are then expected to administer funds to schools within their district, hire and fire, implement provincial policy and see to it that each school in the district receives