Alberta's teaching profession and separate school education

Alberta’s teachers are represented by, and advance the interests of the teaching profession through, one of the most effective teacher associations in the world.  I have a high regard for the Alberta Teachers’ Association (A.T.A.), and I know that the Annual Representative Assembly is in session this weekend (May 20 – 22, 2017).  (The A.R.A. is the primary assembly for policy making, budget setting, and receiving important progress reports.)

On the issue of separate school education the A.T.A. must experience tension, and we may see some evidence of that this weekend, at the A.R.A.  Indeed, the Executive Secretary, Dr. Gordon Thomas, has acknowledged that some difficult matters are on the agenda.  (“Given that approximately one-third of our members are employed by Roman Catholic separate school boards, the 2017 Annual Representative Assembly will debate resolutions, introduced and defended by Provincial Executive Council, that emphasize the Association’s support for continued public funding for Roman Catholic separate school boards as a constitutional right as well as the professional autonomy of Roman Catholic separate school teachers in developing learning resources for their schools.”)

As I interpret Dr. Thomas' statement, I see nothing inappropriate.  It is also not unexpected, or unorthodox.  All of us should respect the provisions of the Constitution until such a time as the provisions are properly changed, and I do not anticipate any resolution from the A.T.A.  rejecting any proposed changes to the Constitution.  (The A.T.A. will likely want to leave leadership on this issue to the citizens of Alberta.)  On the face of it, the proposed position of the A.T.A. seems to be that, if the courts put any new limits on how the expansiveness of the funding may be understood in light of the Constitution, the ATA would accept the newly understood limits.  Similarly, in the light of some Board and ecclesial attempts to intervene in, and direct, the professional practice of teachers in separate school systems, any affirmation by the A.T.A., that separate school teachers must be free to be faithful to their professional practice rather than to doctrinal directions, should be welcomed.

In Alberta, separate schools are a constitutional entitlement for one Christian denominational minority (Catholics).  Separate school systems operate in most parts of the province, although there are still some places where the Catholic community has not taken up the project.  Separate schools are required to enroll any student of the Catholic faith:  they have the discretion to enroll, or refuse to enroll, any student who is not of the Catholic faith.  Separate schools, wherever they exist, are funded on exactly the same basis as public schools and, like public schools, they are governed by a representative assembly of their electorate, who must all be of the Catholic faith.  So, separate schools are a civil democratic institution – they are not owned by or otherwise accountable to the Catholic Church – but they have a deep bias that favours the Catholic view of the world.

The Alberta Teachers’ Association values all teaching, in whatever setting it occurs.  They want to represent all the teachers in Alberta who are employed in either public or separate schools and they want to provide the representation in good faith.  (I support them in this aspiration.)  At the same time, the Association has an historic and deep preference for, and commitment to, ‘public education’.  In the tension between these two positions, the Association chooses to identify separate schools as part of the ‘public school system’ in the province, in spite of three tough realities.

  1. The formal designation of one system is ‘separate school system’, precisely to distinguish it from the ‘public school system’.
  2. The advocates for the separate school system themselves clearly set the separate school system in contrast to (as being not of) the public school system (As one example, Kevin Feehan, then legal counsel for the Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association, wrote,  in the Fall, 2008 Issue of Catholic Dimension:  So let Catholic education be “separate”, different, radical and based upon a concept of education fundamentally opposed to that of the public school system.)
  3. Three characteristics that are commonly identified as being essential to the nature of a public school system are that it be:  (1) accessible to every child, without pre-condition of any kind; (2) governed on the basis of universal adult suffrage (it takes a whole community to raise a child); and, (3) a deliberate and persistent model of a civil democratic community.

A separate school system is not simply without these characteristics:  it rejects them, as Mr. Feehan says, in favour of an explicit alternative – (1) a system that is exclusive as a matter of conviction; (2) a system that is exclusive in its method of governance; and (3) a system that exists to be a deliberate model of a doctrinal community in preference to a democratic community.  (For example, a separate school system may reject providing a venue for vaccination, or may refuse to allow students to form a club, on the basis of advice from an ecclesial authority.)

As Albertans begin the conversation about the future of separate school education, you can expect the Alberta Teachers’ Association to feel pain.  They do not want to promote an upset of the status quo because the upset will, at least temporarily, be hard on the morale of many of their members.  The Association has many other issues on its plate; issues that are more urgent for many of their members.

At the same time, the continued existence and evolutionary development of separate school education also carries with it new challenges for the A.T.A.  For example, in Ontario, where there is also separate school education, there are both public and separate teachers’ associations and one of the consequences of fragmentation is that the organizations tend to be more ‘union-like’ in their activity than ‘professional’.  The growth of denominational teacher preparation schools, such as at St. Mary’s University in Calgary, increases the likelihood that a call will grow for an exclusively Catholic teachers’ professional association in Alberta.  The prospect of the Alberta Teachers’ Association maintaining a strong emphasis on professional development and professional practice is better when it represents all teachers rather than some.  I share their preference for a single, cohesive professional association representing all the teachers in the province.

I have no doubt that there are many members of the ATA, both in the public or separate schools across Alberta and in Barnett House who realize that separate school education is obsolete, contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, especially in its bias against other Christian denominations and other faith perspectives, problematic in many specific situations that have human rights implications, unnecessarily costly in terms of duplicating ‘back room’ services, and unhelpful when it contributes to the fragmentation of communities and the mis-allocation of resources.

At the same time, I expect the Association to support the maintenance of the status quo, and that is a legitimate position to bring to the conversation, along with supporting arguments.  For as long as there are both public and separate school systems in Alberta, I expect the Alberta Teachers’ Association to occupy the difficult middle ground.

Thereafter, when the people of Alberta bring about change, I expect the A.T.A.,and Alberta's classroom teachers, to embrace it with conviction and enthusiasm.


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