By Paige MacPherson (AIMS Author) 

Nova Scotian kids aren’t getting access to the educational choices they deserve. While students in five provinces have a diverse range of partially or fully funded school options, access to unique, independently operated schools in Nova Scotia depends on whether parents can afford it. Usually, Nova Scotian students must attend the public school in their area, even if it’s not the best fit for their learning needs.

Education isn’t one-size-fits-all. Different kids require different kinds of outreach.

Premier Stephen McNeil and Education Minister Zach Churchill can find an innovative solution right here in Canada: charter schools. A new report from the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) shows charter schools have been successful in Alberta for more than two decades, and could deliver big benefits for Nova Scotian students.

Charter schools are autonomous, government-funded, non-profit, public schools which charge no tuition. Each school offers a unique approach.

Alberta has 23 charter school campuses. They’re located mostly in Calgary and Edmonton, but a few are in smaller cities and rural areas. They range from elementary to high school, targeting a diverse spectrum of students.

Alberta’s charter schools focus on everything from academic enrichment to support for students who’ve experienced mental health struggles or trauma. Some offer progressive arts programming or an emphasis on women and girls. One charter school targets students for whom English is a second language; another specializes in science and technology. Others teach intensive music education, promote rural community leadership, or offer Indigenous learning.

Nova Scotia’s public school system has almost no diversity beyond some French programs and the Tuition Support Program, an innovative but limited voucher program for learning-disabled kids. The charter school model allows community groups of parents and educators to start their own charter schools, if approved by the education minister.

Charter schools have developed a reputation for being sought after. The AIMS report shows charter school enrollment is growing relative to total school-age population in Alberta. In 2015, 11,000 students were reportedly on the waitlist for one charter academy.

The schools also deliver impressive academic results. An analysis of grades 6 and 9 Alberta standardized test score data between 1997/1998 and 2016/2017 shows that charter schools on average almost always score better than all other types of schools – including independent schools that charge tuition.

Charter schools aren’t government-run, but the Nova Scotia government can demand a high level of accountability. In Alberta, the government limits which types of charter schools can open (for example, prohibiting them from being religious), and mandates that they be non-profit.

Charter schools can also help students at greater risk of falling through the cracks. Research from the United States shows disadvantaged students have benefited the most from U.S. charter schools.

The Nova Scotia government must look for ways to cut costs long term, to deal with an aging population and health-care demands. Charter schools are significantly less expensive for taxpayers than traditional public schools.

Based on 2015 numbers from the Fraser Institute, the Alberta government’s subsidy for charter schools saves $4,284 for every student, every year, versus public school. Using the Fraser Institute’s 2012/2013 numbers, if 50 per cent of Alberta’s 473,174 public school students moved to charter schools, the savings would be over $1 billion per year.

Alberta has permitted charter schools for over 20 years, so 23 school campuses is a tiny number. A couple of clumsy regulatory barriers make it needlessly difficult to open a charter school, and the government doesn’t fund infrastructure or transportation costs. This saves money in the short term, but likely discourages growth. Nova Scotia has the benefit of learning from Alberta’s experience to design its own policy or pilot project.

Charter schools can shake up the education status quo in Nova Scotia. They could bring more diversity into the public system, at no cost to parents, aiming for better student outcomes at a much lower cost. The proof is in the data – and the thousands of Alberta parents waiting to get their kids signed up, year after year. Don’t Nova Scotian kids deserve the same?

Paige MacPherson is the author of “An Untapped Potential for Educational Diversity”, an Atlantic Institute for Market Studies report measuring the success of Alberta’s charter schools and the potential for expansion into Eastern Canada.