A new legislative framework and separate school education

The Stelmach government’s current initiative to develop a new legislative framework for K – 12 education in Alberta provides an opportunity for citizens to consider and debate the future of separate school education.  The Stelmach government has certainly not flagged this as one of the issues up for consideration, but whenever legislation is opened up for review, it is completely opened up.  The government cannot prevent Albertans from debating the future of separate school education if Albertans want the debate to occur, and the government cannot deny the legitimacy of the debate.  At the end of the debate, the Stelmach government may decide to do nothing about the outcome of the public debate, but at least the people would know the extent to which the government turns its back on public debate.

We should disestablish separate school education in Alberta.

Newfoundland and Labrador, and Quebec have recently done this.  Those two provinces have established that the process is straight forward and the outcome is entirely determined within the province.  Alberta could re-write the School Act in such a way as to disestablish separate school education.

There is no such thing as separate school education in most Canadian provinces (B.C., Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador have no separate schools systems at all.)

1.            By and large, children are better off when they are educated side by side with children of other faiths and family circumstances.

2.            Communities are better off when children are educated in a milieu that is similar to the one they will live in as adults – an inclusive and diverse community, where people of different faiths are constantly rubbing shoulders.

3.            The education system is better directed when everyone who cares about it is in the same room, dealing with the same issues on behalf of all the children, instead of having some adults in one room making decisions on behalf of some children, while other adults are in another room making similar decisions on behalf of some other children.

4.            The fragmentation of resources fragments the community itself, and there are too many fragile communities in Alberta that cannot afford further government sponsored fragmentation.  We cannot prevent individuals from withdrawing from the community, but government sanctioned “separate but equal development”, as a matter of public policy, is apartheid.

5.            Resources can be better used in the classroom rather than in maintaining two parallel management, employee, transportation, and facilities systems.

Separate school education is an anachronism that has not only outlived its vital purpose, its continued existence calls some core beliefs into question.

If the definition of a “right” is something that is available to everyone, without pre-conditions, then separate school education is a constitutionally entrenched privilege, rather than a right.  It is also a privilege that is structured in such a way that the majority over-rides the rights of individuals. We may not want to continue a privilege for some that is not available to everyone on the same basis.

The disestablishment of separate school education is not about religion and it is not a strike against religious freedom or any particular faith community.  It is an affirmation of religious freedom and an affirmation that all faith communities are treated equally in public policy and in law.

Separate schools are not “owned” by any faith organization.  They are not parochial.  (“Catholic” separate schools in Alberta are fundamentally unlike Catholic parochial schools in B.C.)  The Board of Trustees of a separate school division is chosen by a civil electorate not church leaders, and the Board of Trustees has no legal or financial obligation to any church.  The disestablishment of separate school education would not deprive any church of anything that it currently “owns”.  Nor would disestablishment diminish the religious freedom of any practitioner or church institution.

The disestablishment of separate school education would not mean an end to Roman Catholic or Protestant education in Alberta.  It would simply mean that such education would be on the same footing as is provided to Lutheran, or Jewish, or Seventh Day Adventist or Ba’hai or other private and faith-based schools in the province.

It is time to put an end to an anachronistic favouritism.  It is time to acknowledge that communities are being fragmented, and time to promote the cohesion of communities.  It is time to say, without fear or favour, that we prefer to educate all our children side by side, without pre-conditions of any kind.  It is time to say that all adults in the community share the responsibility for the education of all children in the community:  it takes a whole village to raise a child.  It is time to say that we want our public schools to offer a better model of the inclusive and diverse community we know as adults.  It is time to make better use of our resources, especially the energy and imagination of concerned citizens.

Next:  the History and Conditions Surrounding Separate School Education



8 Responses to “A new legislative framework and separate school education”

  1. Esme Comfort Says:

    This is a provocative post, David – as if you did not know! To have a useful public discussion about the disestablishment of separate school education, Albertans would have to have good information. I can imagine a lot of rhetoric would be thrown around in such a debate – a clear focus on the facts and the core issues will be needed.

    It could be a fruitful exercise – how to get Albertans to engage, to realize opening the School Act means everything is on the table? If the province is truly examining a shift in governance, why is this topic off the table? Answer: It takes guts to put it forward and presumably is a big political risk. I don’t see this happening with this regime. I believe, if the question were posed, it will be spun as a restriction of choice and therefore a non-starter. How to make people see what public education is and should be? Why aren’t we talking about removing public funding for private schools?

  2. dkingofalberta Says:

    Esme, thanks for the comment.

    I expect that quite a number of early posts will be emotional, somewhat rhetorical, and reactionary. The debate needs to hear that and get past it.

    We can’t start the debate any earlier than now (although perhaps we should have started it many years ago). I hope that with this post we are now into the debate, and so, next, all the participants in the debate need to provide a responsible retelling of history. We need to provide facts, and we need to concentrate on community values and positive intentions — our dream of what is the best that this province can be in years to come. I hope that supporters of the privilege of separate school education will post comments, and perhaps blog on their own. (Watch for upcoming posts.)

    I would say that it should be hard to spin disestablishment as anti-choice. Many other faith groups have exercised choice for 125 years — and continue to do so. They do it by operating private schools that exist without the privileges granted to separate school education.

    I make an analogy to policing. We are all protected by a civic police force, and our taxes support it. We can choose to hire a private security firm if we wish to, and if we pay the cost. Hiring the private security firm does not come with a subsidy from the community, and we are not allowed to withhold a portion of our taxes because we have chosen private security.

    There are many, many situations in which — as a community — we express a preference for a public good, and yet allow people to make other choices, provided they pay the cost of their choice.

    Among those who choose to opt out, I believe the opting-out conditions should be the same for all.

  3. Esmé Comfort Says:

    Re the Choice issue David. Here is the text from the ACSTA brochure encouraging folks to run as trustees – seems like a pretty clear spin to me:

    Alberta’s publicly-funded education system recognizes the need for choice. It provides students with opportunities to choose an education program that fits their academic and faith needs. This choice-based system is legislatively recognized in both the School Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Having choice in a publicly-funded education system makes all elements of the education system better, as each component works to create adaptive and innovative ways to provide the best education possible to students.
    Catholic schools offer an integrated curriculum of faith formation and
    academic development in an effort to form the student’s whole person.
    This puts Catholic schools in a unique position within the publicly-funded
    education system, one that is celebrated by the community and guided
    by the work of the Catholic school trustee.

  4. dkingofalberta Says:

    Esme, the ACSTA description gives new meaning to the word “choice”. Certainly children/students and their parents have a choice about where the child will attend school, but if the parents are not of ‘the faith’ they cannot choose to be participants in the government of their child’s school. It is interesting that the ACSTA on the one hand encourages parental involvement and then on the other hand says that parents not of the faith, even if they send their children to a separate school, cannot stand for election as a trustee or even vote for a trustee.

    Similarly, we know that there are some Catholics who are not supporters of separate school education. The position of the ACSTA is anti-choice when it comes to these people. The ACSTA would say (has said) that they should not be allowed to choose to support the public school system.

    Perhaps the position of the ACSTA could best be characterized as “choice when it is beneficial to us, but not necessarily choice”.

  5. Esmé Comfort Says:

    Germane to this discussion: http://www.acsso.org.au/AED100831.htm#toc1

    Let me know what you think.

  6. Interesting and Provocative article about seperate school education! « Kim Bater.com Says:

    […] as Executive Director of the Public Schools Boards Association of Alberta. He has a blog and his recent article about separate school education in Alberta is both interesting and provocative. I’d love to […]

  7. Marge Belcourt Says:

    Catholic Education is a choice that students have a right to and I think that competion is healthy. It is competition that keeps our education system constantly improving.

  8. IslandNotes Says:

    It is competition that keeps our education system constantly improving.

    That is a dubious conclusion that we’d perhaps do well to reconsider — from the classroom to the highest levels of decision-making. Our new austere reality is one that’s gonna require a whole lot more cooperative efforts. (Admittedly, I just now sort of cyber-stumbled here and did not have the time to fully digest the context of the discussion here. Aloha from Mt. View Hawaii !

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