April 20, 2013
Published in The Chronicle Herald (Halifax)
The last few years have been difficult ones for public education in Nova Scotia. Declining student enrolment, poor academic results and unpopular school closures are just a few of the problems facing this province.
When it comes to school closures, trustees and parents are caught in a vicious cycle. As student numbers decline, the province reduces funding to public school boards. In order to balance their budgets, boards make unpopular decisions to close schools. Parents feel powerless as trustees ignore their impassioned pleas to keep community schools open.
However, instead of making parents fight a hopeless battle against monolithic and unresponsive school boards, the province should give them the tools they need to take meaningful action. It should follow the example of Alberta and pass charter schools legislation.
Charter schools are public schools that operate independently of school boards. They are governed by non-profit organizations and receive an annual per-student operational grant from the province. Charter schools have no religious affiliation, practise an open enrolment policy and follow the provincial curriculum. Currently, 13 charter schools operate in the province of Alberta.
Parents in rural Nova Scotia should take note of recent events in the tiny hamlet of Valhalla Centre in northwest Alberta. Several years ago, Valhalla Centre nearly lost its community school. However, instead of allowing the school board to proceed with closure, parents and other community members banded together, purchased the school building from the board, and established Valhalla Community School as an independently operated charter school.
Because the school now operates independently of the school board, the community adopted a charter that reflects local concerns and values. Valhalla Community School places a strong emphasis on rural leadership and requires its students to learn about board governance and parliamentary procedure. It also focuses on teacher-directed instruction, classical literature, drill and practice in mathematics, and accurate spelling and grammar. Interestingly, since becoming a charter school, student enrolment has steadily grown as it now attracts students from the wider geographical area.
Imagine what Nova Scotia parents could do if they had the same opportunity to establish charter schools as parents in Alberta. Charter schools legislation would make it possible for parents to keep their schools open while simultaneously refashioning them to better reflect the values of the local community.
Not only that, but charter schools can revolutionize education in urban centres as well. Consider the example of Foundations for the Future Charter Academy (FFCA) in Calgary. FFCA was established almost 20 years ago and its enrolment has steadily grown to almost 3,000 students today on seven different campuses.
Like Valhalla, FFCA places a strong emphasis on traditional academics and hard work. FFCA students wear uniforms, complete regular homework, memorize their math facts and learn to read by phonics. Its program is so popular with parents that it has more than 6,000 students on its wait list.
Many parents in Halifax would probably be very interested if a school like FFCA opened in their city. Since charter schools do not charge tuition, admission would be open to all parents, not just those who could afford high tuition fees.
Parents dissatisfied with the instruction provided in regular public schools would finally have an alternative.
However, the range of potential charter schools goes far beyond those who prefer a traditional model of education.
For example, the Boyle Street Education Centre in Calgary caters to at-risk youth in the 14 to 19 age group while Mother Earth’s Children’s Charter School in Stony Mountain focuses on aboriginal education. In addition, the Suzuki Charter School in Edmonton promotes advanced music skills at an early age using the approach of renowned musician Shinichi Suzuki.
Clearly, charter schools reflect the diversity of Canadian society.
In contrast, the one-size-fits-all model of public education in Nova Scotia does not meet the needs of a diverse population.
The natural trend towards increased central control by school board officials means school principals have limited control over their own schools and simply follow the dictates of the board.
Not only that, recent controversies around school closures have shown that school boards cannot effectively respond to the needs of parents and communities in the face of budget cuts.
Charter schools have the potential to transform public education in Nova Scotia. All the government needs to do is give them a chance.