The Conversation about separate school education is off to a good start

The conversation about separate school education is off to a good start, and conversation often begins with questions.

One Edmontonian who is apparently not Roman Catholic commented that she cares about her child’s education and wants to be involved, to the extent that she voted for separate school trustees last week.  She was surprised to learn that what she did is illegal.  And she added that she was simply following her husband, who is Roman Catholic.  She asked for a legal reference.

Assuming that my understanding of the facts in her case is correct, her situation provides a great example of the confusion about separate school education, and its anachronistic presence in 21st century Alberta.

The relevant section of the School Act is 44(3) and (4).

Resident student

(3)  Subject to this section, every individual is a resident of a public school district or division.

(4)  Where a separate school district is established, an individual residing within the boundaries of the separate school district who is of the same faith as those who established that district, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic,

(a)    is a resident of the separate school district, and

(b)    is not a resident of the public school district.

In the example, the mother is not Roman Catholic and so she is a resident of the (Edmonton) Public School District.  She may not choose to be a resident of the (Edmonton) Separate School District.  At the polling station, on election day, she should have been asked if she is Roman Catholic.  If she answered “no” to the question, she should have been given a ballot for the public school elections.  On the other hand, if she had answered “yes”, the poll clerk could not have asked for any proof:  the clerk must accept the word of the voter (the Starland case:  Mr. Justice McDonald).  Hence, “little white lies” are often told.  Not a good basis for law or for education.

Her husband, standing with her in line, should have been asked the same question.  He would have answered that he is Roman Catholic, and he would have been given a ballot for the separate school election.

In a mixed marriage, with children attending either school system, one parent will be able to participate in the government of the school their child attends, and one parent will be prohibited from participating (unless the “little white lie” is told).

Interested Albertans often challenge me, saying that a poll-clerk cannot ask them their religion.  Many Albertans believe that such a question is illegal according to the Charter of Rights.  In fact, the Charter has a section (29) that specifically allows questions about religion, when the questions are necessary in order to support separate school education.

“29. Nothing in this Charter abrogates or derogates from any rights or privileges guaranteed by or under the Constitution of Canada in respect of denominational, separate or dissentient schools.”

Members of the minority faith want to make sure that only they govern the separate school system, regardless of the presence of children who are not minority faith.  In order to assure that people not of the faith can be excluded, Section 29 was written into the Charter.

In the case of a mixed marriage, the child is properly a resident of the separate school district, on the basis of having one parent who is of the same faith as those that established the separate school system.  The separate school system therefore has an ongoing legal responsibility for the child.  One parent can participate in governing the system:  the other parent cannot.

The law treats property tax in the same way.  If both owners of a home are members of the minority faith that established the separate school system, 100% of the taxes must go to the separate school system.  If one of the owners is of the minority faith and the other is not, 50% of the taxes must go to the separate system and 50% to the public system.  If neither parent is a member of the minority faith, 100% of the taxes must go to the public school district.  Again, there is no discretion about this.  If anything else is happening it is because of administrative error or because someone lied about faith.

The tax issue is largely irrelevant except to illustrate the absence of choice.  Since 1994 the Provincial Cabinet has been setting the mill rate and collecting the property taxes paid for education.  The Provincial government then divides the money and pays it out to school boards.

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2 Responses to “The Conversation about separate school education is off to a good start”

  1. Deborah Says:

    To clarify: I am the person mentioned in this post. Our polling clerk asked my husband and I *which ballot* we wanted, not what our religion is. Nobody lied to anybody.

    If memory serves, the question on the original tax forms we filled out when we bought our home did not ask our religion, it asked which school system we wished to support. There was only one checkbox, not one for each of myself and my husband. (I might be misremembering, since we have been in our present home for more than ten years.)

    Frankly, the suggestion that I have illegally defrauded the school system, however innocently, really bothers me. My husband and children are of the minority faith, and I am not. If our children are being educated in the publicly-funded separate system, we should have the choice to designate that the education taxes collected from our household go to that system, and that all eligible voters in our household vote on the appropriate ballot.

    So. Either the laws need to be rewritten to clarify the position of families of mixed faith like mine and incorporate the precedents such families have legally set – which surely they have in the decades since the Act was passed – or your legal opinion is not entirely accurate. I wonder which it is?

    • dkingofalberta Says:

      Deborah, I apologize for not editing my remarks more carefully. In your tweet there was no suggestion that you had told any kind of lie “white lie” or otherwise, and I did not read that into the tweet. I suspected that the poll clerk had asked the wrong question — asked the kind of question you described above. That happens often, because poll clerks are not very well trained on this issue. I did not think for a moment that you had lied, and I didn’t mean to suggest that.

      I know that in other places, at other times, people in the know have sometimes suggested that citizens tell a little white lie in order to skate past something that would otherwise be sticky. Personally I object to that advice. If the law is bad we shouldn’t be encouraging people to lie about it: we should be changing the law. I guess that because I object to such advice I stretch sometimes to make the point that we shouldn’t be creating circumstances in which people are being advised to lie.

      In the same vein, you haven’t defrauded the school system. Property tax is collected by the provincial government and they distribute it on a per pupil basis. If your child attends the separate school system, the separate school system gets the taxes. If has nothing to do with what you declared on your School Support Declaration Form. Maybe you filled it out incorrectly; maybe a government employee asked the wrong question. In the end, the system that is educating your child is getting the money.

      The School Support Declaration Form is found in the Regulations. The question that it asks, in Edmonton, is: Are you of the Roman Catholic faith? It also asks that for each registered owner of property. Again, the form can ask the question because of Section 29 of the Charter. The only reason we continue to ask the question in Alberta is that the minority faith has the right to tax themselves for schools, and they want to know who their ratepayers are if they ever exercise the right to raise more money than the province provides.

      On your last point, I suspect that separate schools would be glad to add you to their list of taxpayers if they ever decide to tax at a higher rate than the province currently imposes. I suspect that, even if they took the tax money they would not allow non-Catholics to vote for separate school trustees. Control of who may be a voter for separate school trustees, and who may be a separate school trustee is very important to the idea of separate school education.

      I very much appreciate your interest in the question. I apologize that my writing miscommunicated.

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