Two weeks ago I spoke to the 2017 Annual Congress of the Canadian School Boards' Association (CSBA). (The text of my remarks can be found, here.) Part of the message was about passionate advocacy on behalf of public education.
Advocates for public education must be able to describe unique characteristics that are vital to the well-being of the community in one way or another. Mere distinctions, without meaningful differences, are of no use.
Hopefully, the characteristics we proclaim justify our passionate advocacy. Personally, I find it hard to be passionate about "compulsory attendance", or "taxpayer funded", or "elected school boards". There may be some basis for passion behind such descriptions, but it certainly isn’t obvious to the listener. I don’t feel it.
Here's what I offered 350+ trustees and senior executive staff from across Canada.
Four unique, vital, and attractive characteristics of public education, characteristics that set public education apart from separate schools, private and charter schools, or home schooling. These four characteristics set a standard of performance that cannot be attained by any other system of providing education.
1. Public education is the only form of education that is universally accessible, without any pre-condition of any kind. Universal access is not an accident, or an incidental outcome. Public education is universally accessible as a matter of conviction and by design. It is sometimes a matter of sacrifice.
2. At the same time, universal accessibility is really a means to an end. The true objective is inclusion. Public education manifests a preference for inclusion. (To be accessible means that everyone can “enter the dance hall”. To be inclusive means that one is invited on to the dance floor.)
3. The commitment to accessibility, and the preference for inclusion are not based on the desire to achieve conformity: they are an acknowledgement and a celebration of the value of diversity. Public schools are not secondarily accessible, after a primary commitment religious conformity, or gender bias, or comparable income. Public schools are primarily accessible because of the conviction on which democracy is founded – that every human is intrinsically unique, invaluable, and equally capable of unbounded goodness or evil.
4. The commitment to universal accessibility and inclusion as a celebration of diversity make public education a wonderful model of a civil democratic society. The common school is also the foundation of our commonwealth and our life together. How else can we nurture a single “public” that holds together and pursues great common projects even when we experience great differences. Ideally, the public school and all its inhabitants – students, teachers, support staff, volunteers, and the administrative staff and Board – make democracy manifest on the playground, in the hallways, the classroom, the gym, the staffroom, the board room and the voting booth. Hopefully, democracy is made manifest in the program of studies and the curriculum and in the many ways people relate and interact, peer-to-peer, inter-generationally and inter-culturally.
In any public school, these characteristics have two immediate consequences.
In the context of public education, accessibility is both a right and a responsibility, and inclusion must be held up as the aspiration of the community – for everyone. Discharging the responsibility to provide accessibility and striving to be inclusive makes the community and each citizen wiser and better, and stronger.
In the context of public education, local self-government in the context of co-governance (with the provincial government) represents the genius of understanding how important it is to model democracy from the heart out. Public education serves the community as well as the student, and the role of elected trustees is to make the relationship work for the benefit of all.
Tell me what you think.
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.
- The formal designation of one system is ‘separate school system’, precisely to distinguish it from the ‘public school system’.
- 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.)
- 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.
One of the important issues related to the unification of public and separate school jurisdictions is that of process. How would unification be accomplished?
First and foremost, the existence of separate school education derives from the Constitution, so unification would require a constitutional amendment. What is the context?
WARNING: This post will bore most readers to death. It is only for a very few masochists with a peculiar bent, such as a few academics, politicians, media people and ordinary citizens. Most of you can skip to the very last paragraph now.
The first question is, “what constitution”? Do Canadians have only one constitution, the Constitution of Canada, or do the provinces have a (complementary) constitution that is somewhat ‘different’ than the Constitution of Canada and, perhaps, somewhat different from province to province?
The Constitution Act, 1982 (Canada) seems quite clear:
“45. Subject to section 41, the legislature of each province may exclusively make laws amending the constitution of the province.” (emphasis added).
Two things are apparent. The first is that Prime Minister Trudeau (the elder), as well as Premiers Lougheed, Davis, and Blakeney (and the other Premiers) were acknowledging and specifying that each province has a constitution. The second apparent thing is that, in each province, the constitution is not a single document (upper case “C”): it is a “class” of documents, with the possibility (likelihood) of there being more than one document in the class.
This supports the supposition, held by many political scientists and politicians, that a province’s constitution is not consolidated: the totality of the constitution may be found in a number of documents, including a Constitution, statute law, and judicial decisions.
Certainly, the Government of Alberta believes that there is a constitution unique to Alberta. The Government of Alberta also believes that the constitution of the province is not found in a single document, a Constitution: Alberta’s constitution, in the belief of the Government of Alberta, is unconsolidated.
For example, any Government of Alberta would hold that the Natural Resources Transfer Agreement Act, 1930 is part of the constitution of Alberta, though it may not be part of the Constitution of Canada.
As further evidence, the Constitution of Alberta Amendment Act, 1990, begins with Whereas clauses, including these two:
“WHEREAS Her Majesty in right of Alberta has proposed the land so granted be protected by the Constitution of Canada, but until that happens it is proper that the land be protected by the constitution of the Province (emphasis added); and
WHEREAS section 45 of the Constitution Act, 1982 empowers the legislature of a province, subject to section 41 of that Act, to amend the constitution of the province (emphasis added)…”
The name of the Act (The Constitution of Alberta Amendment Act) certainly indicates that the Government of Alberta was amending something that was pre-existing, namely a provincial constitution.
So, there is a constitution of Alberta as there is a constitution of each other province.
We come then to Alberta’s (small c) constitution.
The Constitutional Referendum Act of Alberta becomes the focus of our attention.
2(1) The Lieutenant Governor in Council shall order the holding of a referendum before a resolution authorizing an amendment to the Constitution of Canada is voted on by the Legislative Assembly.
Having spent seven years on the Legislative Review Committee of Cabinet, I feel safe in interpreting this to mean that the Constitutional Referendum Act does not apply to the constitution of Alberta. Section 2(1) refers to an amendment to the Constitution of Canada (emphasis added). Alberta distinguishes between the Constitution of Canada and the constitution of the province. The Act does not refer to an amendment to the constitution of Alberta.
(In any case, the Constitutional Referendum Act is not apparently part of the constitution of the province. The government can amend or repeal it as they think best.)
At this point, the challenge is to identify the elements of the provincial constitution. Particularly, we are faced with needing to come to a conclusion about whether the Alberta Act, 1905 is part of the Constitution of Canada or of the constitution of Alberta. A third possibility is that the contents of the Act are sometimes part of the Constitution of Canada and sometimes part of the constitution of the province.
In this regard, it is helpful to look for guidance from two considerations. First, what part of our life is "constitutionally shaped" but not uniform across all provinces. Second, what aspects (if any) of our constitutional complex have been amended with reliance upon section 45 of the Constitution Act, 1982, the provision that relates to amending provincial constitutions?
On both counts, education comes up first.
On the balance of probabilities, I would conclude that the Alberta Act, 1905 or at least those parts of it that relate to education are part of the constitution of the province and do not trigger the application of the province's Constitutional Referendum Act. In support of this position, I observe that Ontario extended upward (to higher grades) the system of separate school education and did this without triggering the intervention of the federal government.
Subsequently, both Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec changed the constitution of each province with respect to education. In one case (Newfoundland) the change followed a province-wide referendum (two, in fact) held at the discretion of government of the day, without any requirement that one be held. In the case of Quebec the change took place without a referendum. Although Quebec had referendum legislation in place, the Government of Canada did not require that province to hold a referendum.
In both cases the relevant amendment to the provincial constitution followed section 45 of the Constitution Act, 1982, which relates to the amendment of the constitution of the province. In the case of Newfoundland and Labrador, which entered Confederation after the initial creation of the country, the amendment was to Article 17 of the British North America Act, 1949, the legislation by which Newfoundland entered Confederation. In the case of the Quebec change, the amendment was to a provision of the British North America Act, 1867.
These things seem clear to me:
- provinces have constitutions which can (and should be) be understood apart from the Constitution of Canada.
- Alberta has a constitution which needs to be understood and dealt with apart from the Constitution of Canada.
- The Constitutional Referendum Act (Alberta) applies only to amendments to the Constitution of Canada: by omission, it does apply to not the constitution of Alberta.
- An amendment to deal with separate school education would be an amendment to the constitution of the province and not the Constitution of Canada.
- The Constitutional Referendum Act (Alberta) would not be invoked preliminary to an amendment dealing with separate school education.
On April 18 (2017) the Edmonton Separate School Board received a very informative staff report (We are Called to be Leaders of Hope and Mercy: the Hands and Feet of Christ -- Religious Education in Edmonton Catholic Schools).
On its face, Alberta’s Constitution does not permit any religious instruction in either public or separate schools, except during the last 30 minutes of the school day, nor does it allow any school to require any student to participate in religious instruction, nor does it allow any school to deprive any student of any educational benefit for declining to receive religious instruction.
The report provides some helpful understanding of what is happening in one separate school district. The report makes clear that the work has been mandated by the Bishops of the Church, with the expectation that it will be replicated in separate schools across the province (and across Canada).
Discrimination in employment, enrollment, and governance
Basically, separate schools will not hire a teacher (or, likely, anyone who works in their system with children) if the person is not an active Catholic, living a life that is consistent with the doctrine of the Church. In practice, this means that certificated teachers who are not Catholic are excluded from employment in a large segment of the school system that is entirely taxpayer supported. (The same teachers compete with Catholic teachers for positions in the public school system, which is blind to religious affiliation.)
Question: How should teachers in Alberta be advised about this discrimination in employment which is otherwise contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and contrary to provincial employment and human rights legislation? Is this discrimination legal?
Although it is not referenced in the report, separate school systems practice discrimination in at least two more ways.
First, non-Catholic parents whose children may be enrolled in a separate school system may not vote for the separate school trustees who will govern their children’s education. In other words, they have less parental involvement in the governance of their children’s education than if the children were educated in a public school, a charter school, or a private school.
Question: Should non-Catholic parents be formally advised that they will be unable to vote for separate school trustees (or to stand for election themselves) even though their children attend a separate school?
Second, separate schools do refuse to enroll non-Catholic students if those students have exceptional needs or have parents who are ‘high maintenance’.
Question: Should non-Catholic parents of students be formally advised that the enrollment of the students in separate school is entirely at the discretion of the separate school system and their is no appeal from any subsequent decision by the board to refuse to continue the enrollment?
Promoting and subsidizing religious education for employees, in denominational institutions
In addition, there is a growing expectation within separate school systems that each employee will continue lifelong learning in the Catholic faith. While this is called “professional development” it is, in fact, faith development, and it is financially supported by the separate school board, using taxpayer money. Separate school systems, at the urging of the clergy, are promoting a Masters degree in Religious Education, from a Catholic college, and subsidizing the cost of the degree. The cost of the subsidy flows to a Catholic college.
The reason is straight-forward. As the report says: “Catholic schools also play an important role in the evangelization and the mission of the Catholic Church. For many students, the Catholic classroom will introduce the faith not only to them, but also to their parents and caregivers. It is hoped that the Catholic classroom will draw the family into the life of the (Catholic) Church.” (emphasis added. page 2 of the report) Religious education in separate schools is introducing children (students) to “the faith” in the form of Catholic ecclesiology (understanding the faith through a sympathetic understanding of the doctrine and liturgy of the Catholic Church).
And, “Knowing that a Catholic education is more than the religious education curriculum, we look at these (general) curricular competencies through the lens of a Catholic worldview… These learner competencies articulate the unique way in which students who experience the richness of Catholic education approach all subject matter, thus permeating (the Catholic) faith into their learning (emphasis added). (The report’s covering memo, page 2)
Question: Should separate school boards be permitted to use public funds to provide a discriminatory financial inducement for teachers to enroll in a denominational college to take a denominational religious education program?
Evangelization follows permeation.
According to the report, separate schools have a mandate to promote the Catholic parish, and the parish has a mandate to send parishioners into the school as mentors and models for the students. The stated intention is to foster a connection between the student (and the student’s family) and the Catholic parish.
“The parish, in turn, supports the efforts of the school in its mission of evangelization by participating in faith instruction wherever possible.” (the report, page 3) “Catholic schools are … also the connection between the home and the parish. Schools are advocates for the parish and support its efforts to bring the Gospel of Christ to the families it serves. The parish, in turn, supports the efforts of the school in its mission of evangelization by participating in faith instruction wherever possible. Individual members of the parish, both clergy and lay members, provide valuable lessons in faith and outreach and serve as role models for students.” (the report, page 3)
Question: Should separate schools be used to promote evangelization (recruitment) for a particular denomination? Should the non-Catholic parents of students be formally advised that the separate school system permeates the teachings of the Catholic Church as much as possible in all teaching experiences, and encourages the involvement of the Catholic parish in the life of the school for the purpose of facilitating evangelization?
Preparation for the Sacraments (page 3 of the report)
“The Standards for Preparing Children and Youth for the Sacraments (Standards) in the Archdiocese of Edmonton are the result of the Sacramental Education Initiative set forth by the Archdiocese and the Catholic school board chairs and superintendents. The Standards have been developed after four years of wide consultation with priests of the Archdiocese, pastoral assistants, religious consultants, parents, principals and teachers in our Catholic school divisions.
The Standards provide pastors, pastoral assistants, and catechists of the Archdiocese with a framework for preparing children and youth for the sacraments. The Standards are intended to harmonize the preparation practices in parishes throughout the Archdiocese
Over the past three years Edmonton Catholics Schools and St. Joseph’s Seminary have partnered together to place seminarians in our schools as part of their pastoral work. Generally the seminarians visit their respective schools once a week and participate in the schools’ activities by assisting with liturgies, classroom routines, and religious education projects.”
I have watched the short video recording (The Case Against Abortion: Personhood) that was played to grade 10 students in a Red Deer Separate Schools Religion class. The video aroused much debate, principally because it went to considerable length to equate abortion to the Holocaust of WW II.
In the context of separate school education, two observations come to mind.
- The presentation probably weakens the reputation of the pro-life movement, since it offers four logical fallacies with no logical arguments. Readers may wonder why the producers are offering distractions instead of arguments.
• It offers up a straw man (Peter Singer).
• It makes an ad hominem attack (associating pro-choice advocates with the Holocaust).
• It appeals to emotion not to reason, and the appeal to emotion is extreme.
Of the four logical fallacies, the one that is of most concern is that –
• It makes a false comparison (essentially equating pro-choice with the Holocaust). (More on this in a moment.)
- The political defense that is offered is that the school in which the video was shown was a “Catholic” school, and the provincial government, it has been said, has no right to dictate what a denominational institution may teach as part of the work of the school.
This demonstrates ignorance of what a separate school is in Alberta. Although separate schools are often referred to as ‘Catholic’ schools, because their electors are entirely Catholic, it is wrong to read much into the casual term. In spite of the fact that separate schools are often casually referred to as ‘Catholic’ schools, their legal status is that they are separate schools: they are not established by the Catholic Church, or owned by the Catholic Church, or financed by the Catholic Church. They are simply separated from the public school system: they are a civil alternative to public schools. Separate schools are accountable to Trustees, who are elected by a civil election procedure. The Trustees, in turn, are accountable to their civil electorate and to the Minister of Education. The Trustees of a separate school system owe no duty to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Most important, there is nothing in the Constitution or the law that gives separate schools the right to do anything more, in the way of permeation and evangelization, than can be done by public schools. For example, the Constitution (The Alberta Act, 1905) limits religious instruction to the last 30 minutes of each day, in either a public or a separate school.
As such, the classroom teacher in a separate school is bound by the same constraints and obligations, and has the same responsibilities in the classroom, as the classroom teacher in a public school, including the obligation to adhere to the relevant professional standards.
The false comparison
Comparing the pro-choice position to the Holocaust is an egregiously false comparison for many reasons, of which only three are dealt with here.
Whether a fetus is living or not is a matter of genuine and heartfelt uncertainty and disagreement among intelligent people of good will, including people of faith. In contrast, there is unanimity among intelligent people of good will that those who died in the course of the Holocaust were living at the moment gas was administered or a bayonet or bullet was used.
In the face of genuine differences and uncertainty, the current abortion law allows a woman to make an elective decision of very limited extent (herself and the fetus). The law and the organization of the Holocaust was prescriptive and of universal application.
There is no evidence that the decision of any one women, or of many women together, is intended to lead to the elimination of an entire nation of people. The purpose of the Holocaust was genocide. To make the comparison is to suggest that women who act to terminate a pregnancy are acting malevolently and with universal ambition. (As the Chair person of the Red Deer Separate School District said: “Any reference or comparison to the Holocaust in order to make or reinforce another idea is generally not an acceptable method of communication.” Agreeing with him, it also needs to be said that he might have spoken more strongly.)
A civil democratic society believes in, and honours freedom of speech, including the attendant responsibility to teach and to nurture conversations on the assumption of good faith from others, and in ways that are civil, reasonable, and proportionate. Separate schools enjoy no religious freedom that gives them a free pass on the responsibilities of citizenship.
Dianne Macaulay is a long-time Trustee with the Red Deer Public School District. We have reprinted, below, an open letter that Dianne is distributing. As the letter indicates, on Wednesday evening, April 12th, she gave Notice of her intention to move the motion set out in her open letter.
The initial response from the Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association is interesting.
Quoting from the Global News story -- ACSTA President Adriana LaGrange said in early April. “The only way to save taxpayer money would be if all 175,000 students simply stop having access to education altogether.”
The best aim of unification would be to re-direct money away from duplication of ‘back-office’ costs (such as administration, transportation, and maintenance), marketing, and fragmentation, toward improved classroom service and broader access for students to a wider range of programs. The aim is not to ‘save’ money: the aim is to make the best possible use of limited money. In education, money well-used is not a cost: it is a very wise investment.
Universal access and inclusion dictate that all the students currently being educated in separate schools would continue in school – in schools under one umbrella. All the teachers currently working in separate schools would continue to be teaching – in schools under one umbrella.
And, of course, there would be other advantages. An upcoming post on this site will address the video that was recently screened in a Red Deer Catholic Separate school, making comparison to the Holocaust.
Perhaps – hopefully – other public school jurisdictions will find their own way to join and encourage the conversation.
Dianne Macaulay’s open letter
“To the citizens of Alberta :
I have had many conversations with the community and my colleagues over the education system in Alberta since I have become a Trustee. I have a passion for education and doing what is best for students. One of the most dominant and thoughtful conversations have been around “How can we improve our system”?
I support choice within public school districts. All Alberta taxpayers pay for public education in this province and yet we have two school systems that are only for students of one religion.
I want to promote a conversation about the unification of separate with public school boards that will focus on only the issues.
At the Board meeting of the Red Deer Public School District on April 12 –
Dianne Macaulay gave notice of motion for ....
The Red Deer Public board of Trustees advocate for a unified Public School system that allows for Locally elected school boards to offer Catholic programs as well as other faith and program options
It is important to note that this initiative does not call for the abolition of Catholic programs in Alberta, but rather contemplates the potential for public school boards to grow and expand faith program offerings. This is no different than Red Deer Public operating French Immersion programs which do not challenge the existence of the constitutionally protected Francophone School boards. The Red Deer Public School Board supports programs of choice where there is a demand and if anything this would mean more choice, not less! While we are engaged in a dialogue on curriculum redesign, maybe it’s time to have the bigger question about program or system redesign. To be clear, this is the vision of one trustee until a formal vote is taken at the Board table on May 10
I am a citizen with no formal education in the field of education, and I have just spent 9 hours with 35 – 40 educators who are obviously passionate about their vocation and its place in the community and in the universe. I am almost overwhelmed. Sometimes it is good to be 'almost overwhelmed', so my thanks to every participant. It was a great day.
The venue has been the “Twin Peaks” research symposium of the Alberta Teachers’ Association. The participants – leading educational researchers and proponents of research from eight different countries (Finland, Norway, the Netherlands, Iceland, the U.K., Canada, the U.S.A., Australia) and Education International. About 90% of the participants appeared to be evenly split between teachers’ federations and academe, with a scattering of government insiders, and me.
I expect that a number of my posts in the near future will refer directly – or allude -- to what I (think I) heard in the course of these 9 hours.
This post is a prelude to others. The immediate question is, why does the community care? Or, perhaps more precisely, why should the community care?
My own bias is for life in a civil democratic community or society. I would not leave the sustenance of such a community to chance. Such a community needs to be sustained and perpetuated, particularly (but not only) by drawing children and youth into an understanding of and, hopefully, a commitment to the value of living in such a community. In the absence of many other great social institutions that formerly helped mightily to convey the meaning of democracy (cohesive and trusted mass media, universal military service, State-Church connections, and so on), education may now be the only significant community-wide institution capable of performing the role.
Do we care about maintaining a strong sense among our citizens that, together, they are single public, with shared aspirations, some important common project(s), and some essential building blocks for the maintenance of the community? Perhaps the public is no longer important: perhaps democracy is no longer important. Perhaps my bias is romantic and outdated. But, if democracy continues to be important and vital (which I believe it to be), if we care about this common project, then is an organized education system any part of this project? Perhaps, even if we value democracy, we need not be concerned about any particular form of education: perhaps we can rely on it to be self-organizing. Perhaps, in the interests of positive freedom, it is enough that the government provide a grant (voucher) to parents, sufficient for the purchase of private education.
Or, perhaps we are not willing to leave the future of democracy to chance and the market. Perhaps we want a ubiquitous institution that is created and functions to be a deliberate, consistent and persistent model of a civil democratic society. Perhaps we want a system of education that is universally accessible, without pre-condition of any kind. Perhaps we want children (students) to understand a preference for inclusion, and to learn discrimination from the perspective of a prior preference for inclusion. Perhaps we want students to rub shoulders, from moment to moment and from day to day, with students (and teachers) of every condition and circumstance.
For me, personally, it is superficial to define public school education as the system that is state mandated, or the beneficiary of compulsory attendance laws, or tax supported.
The essence of public school education is that it is a deliberate model of a civil democratic society, universally accessible without pre-condition of any kind. It manifests a preference for inclusion and it includes, not to achieve superficial homogeneity but in recognition of the reality that the community is stronger if it wrestles with, celebrates, and is constantly being transformed by, diversity. Public school education is accessible (and strives to be inclusive) in the classroom, in the staff room and in the voting booth. Accessibility is, always and everywhere, both a right and a responsibility. Accessibility and inclusion carry with them implications for respect, justice, personal and community agency, and character (integrity).
One of the important implications of this is that public school education is much more than the program of studies and the curriculum. Public school education is, or ought to be, a model to students on the playground, in the hallways, in student assemblies, and otherwise.
There are certainly some people who believe that when we ‘have’ democracy we can’t lose it, so it doesn’t need to be tended. There are certainly some optimists who believe that the direction of democracy is ‘ever upward’: that it can never slide backward, or be twisted and turned downward. Others believe that, for democracy, ‘what will be, will be’. It is common to believe that maintaining democracy is more the work of elected politicians and public servants than it is the work of citizens. (There are many Americans who failed to vote in the recent Presidential election, and then expressed regret that they had not.) Some people feel privileged that the political system is giving them what they need, so they may safely stand above the fray. They may feel they don’t need to vote because they are getting what they want and will likely continue to do so.
All of us need to remember that democracy is not a condition: it is not something that we ‘have’. It is not the outcome of a process, like the car that emerges at the end of the assembly line. Democracy is an activity, the process itself -- on-going, never-ending, sometimes tedious and frustrating and only occasionally very satisfying. But democracy is not merely instrumental. The genius of democracy is that it is process (means) married to intention. And, if the work itself is only occasionally very satisfying, the rewards are great. Democracy is the work of making a house a home -- cleaning, improving, making safe, beautifying, offering hospitality, acting justly, being fair, showing compassion. Public school education is also the work of making a house a home, of our students learning and living and then pro-creating the community in which they live – now and in the future.
Promoting a conversation about the unification of separate with public school boards should focus on the issues. But, as often happens in political discourse these days, some people will quickly turn the conversation away from the principles, policies, and practices, to focus, instead, on personalities and personal circumstances.
This initiative is only five days old, and the following letter has appeared in the Edmonton Journal –
Re: “Former education minister launches campaign for one public school system,” -- The headlined story appeared in the March 30 edition of the Edmonton Journal (here)
“David King never tires of criticizing the Catholic school system. His children went through the education system many years ago. Someone ought to ask King which system he chose for his family. I had the pleasure of teaching his children in the Catholic school system. Enough said.
(signed) R.C. Newcombe, Edmonton
Mr. Newcombe apparently believes that my advocacy of unifying separate school systems with public systems is based on some unhappy experience that my children had in the separate school system in years gone by. In fact, I hold my position notwithstanding good personal experience. My concerns are about principles, policies, and practices.
But, my life and my family are interwoven with Catholicism, and since Mr. Newcombe or others may come back with other reflections on my family, let me put widely known facts about my family on the record. (Anyone who knows us knows our circumstances.)
My wife is an active Roman Catholic and was, for more than 30 years, a very happy teacher in a separate school system where she was well-treated and where, I am confident, many children received the education the province and their parents expected them to receive. (I know that my wife poured herself into her teaching.)
I am an active member of the United Church. My father, my grandfather, and many other relatives have been clergy.
My wife and I generally attend both Mass and a United Church worship service on a Sunday morning. For more than a decade I was a reader in our local Catholic church. My wife and I were married in a Roman Catholic church in the Diocese of St. Paul, and my father participated in the ceremony, with the prior approval of the Bishop.
One of my early jobs was as Research Director for the Edmonton and District Council of Churches. The then President was a Roman Catholic priest who became a life-long friend. He baptized our eldest son, who subsequently became a Knight of Columbus and a Squires leader. (My father baptized our second son.)
Because my wife is Roman Catholic our children had the legal ‘right’ (or privilege) to be educated in either the public or separate school system. Together, they were educated for 10 of 36 years in the separate school system. (If, at the time, there had been the current controversy about G.S.A. clubs, or the recent controversy about vaccination, they would not have been educated in the separate school system at all.)
Faith is important to me personally, and I respect the faith of others, although I sometimes disagree – even strongly -- with doctrinal positions, including the doctrines of my own denomination. However, it is not faith or family experience that brings me to my position (except that, for reasons of faith, I believe strongly in the separation of Church and State). Nor is it the quality of the teaching in the separate school system, or the results that separate school students achieve on Diploma exams that bring me to my position.
With this, I believe that I have made full disclosure. I would certainly have done this earlier if I had suspected that it would be germane to anyone’s response to the invitation to a conversation. If any reader has concerns about how my own and my family’s faith journey impacts my approach to this issue, I look forward to hearing from you, perhaps directly. Otherwise, I would like the conversation to return to the principles, the policies, and the practices that lead to proposing unification.
1. Separate school education is an anachronism that was invented 250 years ago, more than 3,000 km away, for reasons that are simply not relevant in Alberta at the beginning of the 21st century. In Alberta at the beginning of the 21st century Roman Catholics do not need ‘protection’ any more than people of most other faith traditions need protection. (There is no evidence that Roman Catholics in the six Canadian provinces without separate school systems experience discrimination as a result.)
2. Separate school education in Alberta was never a condition of Confederation, and Quebec, where separate school education was invented, did away with it 20 years ago.
3. Separate school education is a privilege that is extended to one denomination and denied to all others, contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. To put the Roman Catholic Church on the same footing as every other denomination or faith community in Alberta is not a discriminatory proposal.
4. In the course of permeating and evangelizing the Roman Catholic faith, separate schools have lost sight of the fact that they are a civil institution, not a Church institution. In the course of permeating and evangelizing they are sometimes undemocratic.
5. In the absence of any compelling reasons to continue separate school education, there are considerable annual investments that could be much better used in the classroom rather than for administration, facilities, transportation and other costs.
With this, I hope that we can return to discussing the substance of the proposal, rather than the personal circumstances of individuals.
Since 'unveiling' the web site a couple of days ago, there has been considerable public interest and support.
The initial news release went out to a couple of hundred media outlooks across the province. My thanks to the people who made this happen. You know who you are.
There was a good story in the Edmonton Journal (here) on Wednesday. On Thursday morning I talked with Danielle Smith about unification, on Calgary 770. Today I did live interviews with two CBC early morning shows -- the Eye Opener in Calgary and Edmonton AM. At noon I did a 30 minute phone-in show on CBC radio Calgary. Also today, I have done an interview with the Red Deer Advocate. There may be something in the paper tomorrow.
The take-away from the media response, and the phone-in program
The reporters are interested. I hope this means they hear unification talked about and know it is a story that deserves attention.
On the phone-in program the callers were about 3 or 4 to 1 (75% - 80%) in favour of unification.
One caller referred to 'research' concluding that private schools consistently perform better than public schools. I responded that I know of no such research, and I invited him to get back to me with detailed information about the research he referenced. This kind of intervention often happens in conversations about important issues. Sometimes the 'research' is simply concocted by one person and then repeated, in ignorance and in good faith, by people whose bias it supports. In this conversation it will be important to call out all claims to research evidence, and validate it (or not). Where there is no good research, we should call for well-qualified people to do it.
One caller, from rural Alberta, expressed support for the local separate school system because it provides a program the corresponding public school jurisdiction does not. I suspect that, on the other hand, the local public school system provides some programs that the separate school system does not. Especially in rural Alberta, two parallel school systems cannot offer as wide a range of programs as they might want to. They are forced to make choices that further fragment the community.
Our web site
The web site is operational, and my sincere thanks to the lady who made it happen. (You know who you are.)
Now, we want suggestions about how to improve it. What particular information would you like to have? How can we support the conversation across the province? Are there broken links? Are there new social media applications that we should be exploring and using?
"Joining the community" and furthering the conversation
Most of the public's direct response has been in the form of people "liking" the Facebook page.
It is important to have people "join the community" on the web site. This provides us with contact information that we can use. These are the people who are more ready to volunteer, and volunteering is important because we want to create a constituency of support.
The whole conversation/campaign is self-organizing. As more people become involved, we will discover new ways of furthering the conversation. We will add new arguments to our part of the conversation. We will gather more and better evidence. We will create the conditions that support 100 or 1000 local conversations, rather than a single province-wide conversation.
Volunteers are beginning to step forward, and we have had two donations. My thanks to you: you know who you are.
The following News Release went out to Alberta's media on Wednesday, March 29th.
For Immediate Release - Wednesday March 29th, 2017
EDMONTON- Former Education Minister David King has launched a website to promote the constant improvement of public education across Alberta. The initial focus is on unifying the province’s public and separate school boards.
“I invite Albertans to join me in a campaign about a better IDEA-- Inclusive, Diverse, Education for All. From Milk River to Keg River, and from Lloydminster to Blairmore, it is time for a thoughtful conversation, involving every interested Albertan, about why we duplicate administration and services, and operate under-utilized schools, to preserve a denominational privilege that is out of keeping with current human rights practices and may no longer be relevant.”
“The recent provincial budget revealed serious on-going financial shortfalls for the provincial government. In education, this raises questions about duplicating administration and infrastructure costs when the money could be re-directed to the classroom for better service to students or reduced costs to parents. Imagine how much further school fees could have been reduced without the current cost of duplication.”
A successful campaign to promote unification of the two systems will quickly involve others, including education and civic organizations and concerned citizens. The conversation will take many forms, from small house meetings to large gatherings, and may eventually lead to a province-wide referendum or similar outcome. ourIDEA extends an open invitation to Albertans -- join the conversation, ask for information, offer suggestions, involve your neighbours.
For ourIDEA.ca, the goal is to offer a focal point and a reliable resource base -- of information, argument, and campaign practices to encourage and support the conversation that should spread across the province. Currently, this site has one active project: the unification of Alberta's two civil school systems -- public and separate, along lines already adopted in Newfoundland and Labrador and in Quebec. (In both provinces, denominationally established school systems have been drawn into non-denominational public school systems.)
From time to time, the web site will take up other projects. The constant focus will be -- our Inclusive, Diverse Education for All.
Follow us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ourIDEA.ca/
Contact: David King (email: firstname.lastname@example.org Telephone: 780-216-5402 )