First considerations – Educational Choice in Alberta

As with almost any enterprise, there are considerable financial, social, and academic risks involved in starting an independent school. Although these risks are usually outweighed by the potential benefits, there is wisdom in pausing to consider both the need for an independent school and the possible alternatives. The following questions and information should be explored before taking the necessary steps to establish a new private/independent school in Alberta:

Interest in establishing an independent school is often generated by dissatisfaction with the progress of children in a particular school. Although a significant number of people may agree that there is a problem, many independent school ventures that fail do so because of a lack of consensus on the details of the solution. In the current era of school development in Alberta local public and separate school boards have become more willing to accommodate alternative or modified programs. Since attendance is not restricted to “resident” jurisdictions, many people have found that it is useful to explore educational opportunities within the public system.
A discussion with the local superintendent or with your trustees may show that alternative programs already exist that are similar to the educational structure or philosophy being considered.

The local public or separate school board may be open to the idea of setting up an alternative program within its jurisdiction that embraces the proposed educational program. Such alternative programs would be operated under the board’s policies and teachers must be members of the Alberta Teachers Association. The program may be required to have an open enrolment policy or attendance may be restricted based on legitimate criteria.

If a proposed alternative program is formally rejected by a public or separate school jurisdiction an application can be made to the Minister of Education for approval of a Charter School. Charter Schools are operated under self-governance and teachers are not included as members of the Alberta Teachers Association.  They must have an open enrollment policy, and may not charge tuition fees or be affiliated with a religious faith or denomination.

Alternatively, there may be another independent school in existence that is willing to adapt its program, enrolment, transportation, or other policies to accommodate the needs of those proposing the new school.  A discussion with the leadership of an operating independent school may be helpful in identifying an operating partner or an encouraging, supportive ally in the development of a new independent school.

The School Act Authorizes Two Types of Private Schools

According to the School Act all private schools must be registered. A school is entitled to be registered if it meets the following conditions:

  1. the program of studies meets provincial goals and standards,
  2. the school meets provincial standards of student achievement and achievement testing,
  3. the operator agrees to regular evaluation and monitoring, and
  4. the school meets all local and provincial health, safety and building standards.

Registered independent schools are not entitled to provincial funding.

According to the School Act, a private school is entitled to be an accredited private school if it meets the following conditions in addition to the conditions for registration:

  1. the program of studies must be approved by the Minister. This usually means that the school will follow the Alberta Program of Studies.
  2. the student body must consist of at least 7 students from 2 or more families, and
  3. the teachers must have qualifications which are approved by the Minister. Presently approval is limited to Alberta Certification, although the legislation provides some latitude for alternative qualifications.

Accredited private schools are entitled to partial provincial funding, pursuant to the Minister of Education’s authority to make grants under the Government Organization Act and the Education Grants Regulation (AR 120/2008). However, accredited private schools must operate for one year with no government funding (Private Schools Regulation section 9(1)). Accredited private schools may be eligible for provincial funding in their second year of operation if they meet all the requirements for funding.

Accredited Private ECS Operators receive full provincial funding in the first and subsequent years of operation.

 Refer to the most recent Funding Manual for School Authorities for details on applicable funding rates.

(Funding Manual for School Authorities)

Other Options for Unique Educational Programs

An “alternative program” is an education program operated by a public or separate school board that emphasizes a particular language, culture, religion or subject-matter, or uses a specific teaching philosophy. Program proposals may originate either with parent and community groups or with school jurisdiction staff. Some considerations related to developing a program proposal are that:

  • the proponent group must understand the school board alternative program framework and provincial legislation governing alternative programs, schools and school jurisdictions
  • the school board’s alternative program framework may require a formal written proposal, or it may allow for a more informal process of preliminary discussion
  • the public or separate school boards usually delegate staff who will receive and evaluate the proposal on behalf of the jurisdiction.

The program proposal may be written by the proponent group or the jurisdiction’s administrative staff or the two groups working together. Some advantages of both groups working collaboratively are that the process:

  • enables relationship building and trust
  • builds understanding of roles and responsibilities
  • enables the school jurisdiction to shape the program based on sound pedagogical principles
  • enables staff to share the strengths and requirements of the jurisdiction with the proponent group
  • allows parental involvement, which encourages student recruitment and provides the school board with proof of need and potential enrolment.

Parents and societies involved in alternative programs have a legitimate and important role to play in these programs, and the jurisdiction staff have a responsibility to work in a way that enables parents and societies to make the maximum contribution to the program. It also is critical that participants understand that, as mandated by the School Act, the decision-making authority will remain with the local school board and its administration. School boards are accountable for the results of the alternative program.

The time required to develop and implement a new program will vary depending on the nature of the program and the requirements of the board’s processes. It may take up to a full school year to plan and develop an alternative program. It is suggested that board approval be obtained by December of the year prior to the planned start date.

Refer to the Alberta Education website for more information regarding “Alternative Programs.”

The School Act also allows for the creation of charter schools which operate as “autonomous” alternatives within the public system under a contractual relationship with the Minister of Education.  Charter schools are not independent schools.

Charter schools are autonomous non-profit public schools that:

  • provide basic education in a different or enhanced way to improve student learning, attitudes and knowledge
  • meet the needs of a particular group of students through a specific program or teaching/learning approach
  • follow Alberta Education’s Program of Studies

Alberta has 13 charter schools that occupy 23 school buildings.  School districts, mainly in Calgary and Edmonton, own 20 of these buildings.

Once charter organizers have decided to proceed with an application for charter status, these steps must be followed.

  • The local school board and the charter organization must make every attempt to arrive at an agreement for the establishment of an alternative program under section 21 of the School Act.
  • The local school board has 60 school days to reject the application for an alternative program. The local school board must inform the charter organizers, in writing, stating the reasons for rejection if the application is not approved.
  • If the local school board rejects the application, the charter organizers have 30 school days to submit a charter school application directly to the Minister along with all correspondence between the board and the applicants. A committee may be appointed to review the application and advise the Minister of its recommendations. The Minister then has 60 days to decide whether to approve the charter as submitted, approve it with conditions, or reject it stating the reasons for doing so. This decision will be final.

There are important differences in tuition, enrolment policies and the governance of Charter schools as compared to independent schools which will affect any decision to apply for a Charter rather than start an independent school.

Refer to the Alberta Education website for more information regarding “Charter Schools.”