Charter schools have both committed supporters and staunch opponents, but the idea is so new that most people are just curious and perhaps a bit confused.

John McCarthy, a Canadian expert on charter schools, expects to hear all three viewpoints when he visits Fredericton Jan 26 and Saint John Jan 28.

Dr. McCarthy, a retired school superintendent in Calgary, heads a newly formed non-profit group, the Canadian Charter Schools Research and Development Centre. He is coming to speak at public meetings in New Brunswick at the request of a two local groups trying to stir interest in such schools for their cities.

“The first thing to understand is that these are public schools, not private schools,” he says. “A common objection is that they’re for the elite. But that’s a myth. The data show that they get no more elite students than any other school.”

They are, however, schools where parents may get far more say than in a centrally administered system.

That’s what piqued the interest of William Forestall, one of the organizers of the new Fredericton group, Citizens for Effective Education. Mr. Forestall has two children in the early years of elementary school, and he worries about their future when he looks at the state of the province’s schools and problems like shockingly high illiteracy among graduates.

He sees in charter schools a chance for parents and teachers to work together and provide both higher quality education in a much improved learning environment.

Don Beyea, who heads a similar grassroots group in Saint John, has been involved with school governance structures and he’s frustrated with “centralized, one-size-fits-all decision-making”.

“The prospect of being able to have a direct impact in a charter structure stands in sharp contrast to the impotency presently being experienced,” he says. “I’m sure that the parental frustrations are shared by many classroom educators.”

The meetings in both cities are open to everyone. The Fredericton meeting will be held at MacLaggan Hall on the UNB campus at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday. The Saint John meeting is at 7:30 p.m. in the auditorium of Saint John High School.

The Citizens for Effective Education groups are working in partnership with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies to bring Dr. McCarthy to New Brunswick. AIMS, with funding help from the Weston Foundation, is sponsoring a similar meeting in Nova Scotia.

AIMS president Don Cayo says the Institute’s mandate is to foster public discussion of innovative solutions to persistent problems.

“Charter schools aren’t well understood in this region,” he says, “but they hold the potential to involve both parents and teachers in all of the meaningful aspects of children’s’ education.”