PhD study leads to concern over charter schools
By Amie Lynn Shirkie
Research conducted by a recent U of S doctoral graduate suggests that charter schools may be cause for concern to the public education system.
Rick Sawa believes that parents and educators need to carefully evaluate charter schools before supporting their establishment.
Sawa, who has worked as a teacher, in-school administrator, and director of education for 30 years, felt it was his “mission” to study charter schools. He began a PhD program in Educational Administration at the U of S in 2000.
His study, supervised by Murray Scharf, focuses on a charter school in Calgary. Sawa describes charter schools as institutions that are “run like private schools, but funded with public money.”
Charter schools have long been prevalent in the United States, but are fairly recent developments in Canada. At the time Sawa began his study, there were 10 Canadian charter schools in operation, all of them in Alberta.
Sawa’s intent was not to evaluate the educational merit of the charter school program or teachers; rather, he was interested in discovering how charter schools operate, who benefits from their establishment, and what effect they might have on the public education system.
Using a qualitative case study approach, Sawa gathered information through focus groups and personal interviews with representatives of selected charter and public schools, Alberta Learning, and the Alberta Teachers’ Association. He also examined school, board, and provincial documents in order to inform his study.
He soon discovered there were two sides to the contentious question about the effects of charter schools on public schools, both of which, according to his findings, “were proven to be correct”.
Advocates of charter schools declare that their establishment will increase educational diversity, a viewpoint that has been verified by the foundation of two new charter schools in Calgary, and the implementation of several alternative programs within the Calgary public school system to compete with charter schools.
Opponents of charter schools correctly maintain that charter schools have a detrimental effect on public school funding, as money follows the students when they leave a public institution for a charter school. Opponents further rightly argue that charter schools will skim the better students from public schools, leaving the more challenging students behind. The charter school in question refused to enrol students with special needs.
Sawa found that the students enrolled in the charter school generally enjoyed their experiences there, preferring the smaller class sizes (this school limited enrolment to 25 students per grade) and stricter discipline policies of the charter school over those of public schools.
Parents who enrolled their children in charter schools had a range of opinions on the matter.
Some detested public schools and advocated an educational system without government involvement; other parents, concerned with aspects of public education, enrolled their children in the charter school in the hopes of sending public schools a message about their dissatisfaction.
On interviewing officials from Alberta Learning and the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA), Sawa found that the ATA supported public education completely, whereas Alberta Learning was simply concerned with providing parents and students a more diverse range of educational options.
Sawa’s concern is that not all Calgary citizens will benefit from this increased diversity.
Officially, admission to the charter school is conditional on a “first-come, first-served” basis, but Sawa uncovered information to the contrary. Students previously enrolled in other charter or private schools or students with siblings already admitted to the charter school have an improved chance for acceptance. Parents who have transferred from and returned to Calgary for business purposes have an advantage in obtaining admission for their children.
Sawa believes that the middle and upper middle class benefit most from the establishment of charter schools, because “they have the knowledge and resources to enrol their children.” Sawa asserts, “It is not fair that not every child has an equal opportunity to attend that school.”
Sawa adds, “My concern is that education is on its way to becoming privatized, and that charter schools are being used as a stepping stone.”
He believes charter schools need to be evaluated more fully before they become established in other provinces. He fears that a privatized education system could turn into something like the privatized food industry, where economic status could determine the quality of educational sustenance received. “Are we going to end up with school banks in the same buildings as food banks?”
Sawa hopes his study may be useful to other provinces as they determine their stance on establishing charter schools. He is currently employed as the director of the Saskatchewan Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, an independent, non-partisan research organization.
Sawa asserts he has “a great deal of respect for the public sector, even with all its shortcomings,” and that he will continue to be active in public policy debate and formulation.
Amie Lynn Shirkie writes graduate student profiles for the College of Graduate Studies & Research.