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