A charter school is a public school that functions semiautonomously. Its charter is a document that declares the school's special purpose and rules of operation. Since a charter school is publicly funded, it is not permitted to select its students or charge tuition fees. It is required to teach the standard curriculum, to have a board of governors, and to be accountable to the agency that granted its charter.
Depending on the legislation that is designed to cover charter schools, a school may have a "sunset clause" in its charter. That clause will come into effect when the school is evaluated after a prescribed number of years to see if the objectives set out in the charter are met. If not, the school is closed. The legislation will also determine who may establish a charter school, such as groups of parents, teachers, administrators, universities, school boards or ministries of education. Charter schools are funded by their chartering agency (a district school board or ministry) on a per-pupil basis and are not subject to many of the policies that govern other public schools. For instance, they typically prescribe their own staffing and equipment requirements, determine their own budgetary priorities within the limits of their funding, and may not be required to hire union members.
Charter schools do not have the freedom of independent schools, which have more curricular flexibility and are usually not funded by public dollars. Charter schools themselves are not profit making, but they may purchase services from profit-making corporations.
The Debate about Charter Schools
Proponents of charter schools argue that public schools have too little flexibility to meet the needs of students. Public schools are seen as bound by excessive regulations stemming from provincial laws, school district policies and union contracts. Consequently, advocates suggest that public schools are unresponsive to the demands of parents and are places where innovative educational practices are difficult to achieve. Proponents say that uniformity of public schools is a detriment to the quality of students' education and that more choices of programs and competition among schools are needed so that ineffective schools are closed.
Persons and groups opposed to charter schools believe charter schools mean some students would receive different kinds of education from others, thus reducing the common core of learning available in public schools. They also argue that the quality of education now provided to persons in disadvantaged groups would suffer since a two-tiered system of education would develop. One tier would consist of charter schools attended by students of parents who opted out of the district schools; the other would be comprised of district schools that could not compete fairly so they would lose resources and serve only the most needed. Thus, the ability of district schools to offer equal educational opportunity for all students would be undermined.
Charter Schools in Canada
Alberta is the only province with charter schools, having adopted charter legislation in 1994 in order to provide greater innovation, increased educational opportunities, and permit more parental choice. These schools cannot deny access to students as long as space is available, they cannot have a religious affiliation, they must require students to write provincial examinations, they may exist in present school buildings, they must employ certified teachers, and they are subject to annual audits. They operate under multi-year agreements between the Minister of Education and non-profit societies that specify the schools' focus and expected outcomes. Enrolment totals about 7500 in 13 charter schools. Eighty-three percent of the students are in Calgary (6 schools), 11 % in Edmonton (3 schools), and the balance in smaller communities. The number of charter schools is capped at 15. Of these, two schools are for gifted youth, two offer traditional models of direct instruction, two are arts schools (including one devoted to the Suzuki method of musical instruction), one offers a progressive model of integrated, project-based learning, and the remainder focus on special populations: at risk-youth, Aboriginal youth, girls, rural students, and English language learners. Current schools are successful and have waiting lists, and they have exhibited the level of innovative leadership that had been expected. Some school districts, in response to real or anticipated competition from charter schools, have created theme-focused schools offering more choice than was common in the past. Edmonton is a leader in this portfolio approach to operating a large district with site-based management of diverse types of schools.
Alberta Charters vs. US Charters
Alberta's model is quite restrictive in the numbers and operation of charter schools compared to what is allowed in the 40 US states with charter laws. It is similar to the state of New Jersey in that charters are limited in number and closely regulated. Such schools tend to demonstrate superior performance. Other states, such as Michigan and Arizona, have no limits on charters, loosely regulate them, and allow them to be operated by for-profit companies called educational management organizations. Their outcomes are sometimes excellent, but usually no better than or even worse than district schools. The Obama administration made lifting caps on the number of charter schools and converting poor performing district schools into charter schools the centrepiece of its "Race to the Top" educational policy in 2009. Yet, international comparisons demonstrate Canadian students, and Alberta students in particular, are among the highest performing in the world, whereas US students are typically in the lower half of the distribution. US online charter schools have been targeted for criticism in that some, though nominally non-profit, contract for virtually all services with for-profit companies that pay top management salaries exceeding $1 million. Careful analysis of the US literature supports the Alberta model in terms of academic outcomes and fiscal propriety.