In recent years, K-12 education choice has emerged as an issue in many parts of Canada. Examination of the issue has largely taken place in the popular media. Evaluation of choice schools and policies has taken a back seat to published opinion. The debate, however, raises important considerations for policymakers.
Historical agreements and precedents in Canada have provided alternative denominational and language-based public schools in some provinces. Recent constitutional challenges have established the right of access to publicly funded francophone schools in all provinces. Home schooling and private schools have provided a measure of choice to parents with the means to access these options. A few public magnet schools have historically offered specialized and often elite programs limited to some students. Public pressure has resulted in the formation of other alternative public schools and schools-within-schools. But for the majority of Canadian families, the neighbourhood school has been the only viable option.Recent Developments in Canada
Manitoba introduced parental choice of schools as a part of its current education improvement plan. Renewing Education: New Directions promised to "facilitate parental choice, within limits, in selecting the public school best suited to the childs learning requirements". Press releases stated, " Choice of schools represents the Governments commitment to foster educational partnerships among parents, schools and local communities." The first year of the program, 1997-98, saw over 16,800 Manitoba students participate in the school choice initiative.
School boards across Canada are responding to public pressure for education choice. In B.C., as in other provinces, traditional, fine arts, Montessori, language immersion and other alternative school proposals are commonly heard and sometimes implemented. The Prince George School District has developed a comprehensive choice school policy. Proposals are encouraged from both the community and educators, with an application guide and a district committee to facilitate the process. To provide parents with information about various choices, the district publishes an annual catalogue of schools describing the strengths and climate of each.
Edmonton Public School District is a leader in providing a diverse array of schooling choices, declaring "In school, what works for one child may not work for another. That's why we are committed to giving people options when it comes to education." Some 52% of Edmontons secondary students attend public schools other than their neighbourhood school.
Alberta was the first province in Canada to introduce a new concept in public education choice: charter schools. Chartering allows schools freedom from local regulations that are often barriers to implementing alternative models. In exchange, these schools must be able to demonstrate they provide an enhanced or different education and they must prove that this increases student learning.
Albertas new funding framework includes the principle that "instruction funding follows students to the public and separate schools they attend (to) provide parents and students with greater choice of education programs." This concept particularly impacts the choices available to parents of special needs children, as they are now eligible to receive full funding at designated private special education schools. This contrasts sharply with policies elsewhere, where private schools for special needs students have difficulty securing funding if they are not following the provincial curriculum - something not always possible in a specialized program.
Technology is providing Canadian educators opportunity to create innovative "choice" schools that are not tied to a physical plant. Virtual schools and distance education is an area of rapid growth with much future potential.International Developments
Many European countries have historically offered all citizens equal choice between public and independent schooling. In other nations, such as Australia and New Zealand, school choice is a more recent policy initiative. In the United States, it has become a civil rights issue. New national surveys indicate it is blacks, minority and other disadvantaged groups that are now the strongest supporters of school choice.
U.S. President Clinton has set a target of 3,000 charter schools by 2002 as a means of promoting choice and innovation in public education. In late 1997, a federal charter school bill, HR 2616, provided funding incentives to states that hold charter schools academically accountable while still giving them autonomy. In May of 1998, Missouri became the 33rd state to enact a charter school law. The concepts of chartering and distance education are sometimes combined in schools like Californias Choice 2000 Charter School, a virtual school located on the internet.
In England, where school choice in the public education system is well established, the government is drafting a new statutory Admissions Code of Practice. This addresses equity issues by greatly reducing or eliminating selection of students based on academic ability and improving admissions processes. It also provides for expanded information for parents to facilitate the choice of a suitable school.Policy Considerations
In North America there is increasing demand and support for choice without financial penalty. The public recognizes that "financially able" parents have the means to exercise advantageous choices unavailable to most of the population. Carefully structured choice policies can address much of this inequity and ensure the most disadvantaged are not left behind in exercising school choice.
Canadian debate about choice is often debate about the role and purposes of public education.
If socialization is the primary purpose of public schooling, the position is often taken that attendance at the neighborhood school is not only a right, but a responsibility. If, on the other hand, public educations primary role is to maximize individual skills and knowledge for the accrued intellectual and economic benefits to society at large, choice of learning environments would seem logical. Unfortunately, polarization of positions around the larger issues has limited exploration that education choice may hold in meeting the varied goals of Canadian public education.
Among the many questions policymakers need to examine are:
- Can choice increase opportunities for all children to learn successfully?
- Can choice increase parental involvement and support for students and schools?
- Can choice increase the overall accountability of the public education system?
- Can choice inform us about successful practice and what works?
Choice schools have the greatest impact when considered as part of an overall strategy of school improvement. Choice can be used to determine best practices, meet parental preference, provide services for children that are not well served by their neighborhood school, provide a better match between student /programs/teachers, and make more efficient use of dwindling resources.Implementing Choice
There are further questions around careful implementation of choice to achieve these intended consequences:
- Accountability structures
What structures are needed to ensure that minimum criteria are met and that student progress and program integrity is adequately monitored? Charters and school contracts can ensure that innovative "choice" public schools are accountable. Conversely, it can be self-defeating to constantly challenge an alternative program to prove itself when other schools in the system do not face similar measures for comparison.
- Supply of choice
Is choice for some sufficient? If, ideally, every school is a chosen school, a meaningful menu of choices would need to be available to families. Parents and students would be provided with information about their options, and assistance in making an appropriate decision would be available for those requiring help. Information on school performance would be widely available.
- Admissions processes
What are fair and equitable student selection rules? In British Columbia, an annual media event surrounds parents camping out to secure placement for their child under the first come, first served admissions policy. Other choice schools use a lottery method. Both methods have critics.
Worldwide,choice is increasingly part of an overall strategy of school reform at both macro and micro levels of public education governance. Proactive rather than reactive policy combined with the implementation of an accountability structure hold the best promise for this trend in public education to positively affect learning and impact on school improvement.
This article appears in: EDUCATION ANALYST. Vol.#1 Issue #4. Fall, 1998. Pages 4-5.
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