Varieties of Formal Education, Other Than Public School Education

Public school education is generally the dominant type of formal education, but there are many alternatives.  Alberta probably has as many types as would be found anywhere.

1. Separate school education is provided for in the provincial constitution that was crafted by the Liberal government of Sir Wilfred Laurier in 1905.  Separate school education is premised on the idea that Roman Catholics, being the religious minority, should have the right to establish and operate a system of schools parallel to the public school system.

This separate system is tax supported on the same basis as public schools, and it is locally self-governed by a representative assembly of trustees who are elected by a list of electors that is exclusively Roman Catholic.

At the discretion of the separate school system, non-Catholics may enroll in separate schools, but they enroll entirely at the discretion of the separate school board and they may be refused at any time.  Non-Catholics may not vote in separate school board elections, even if their children are attending a separate school.

Although separate schools are often referred to as ‘Roman Catholic separate schools’ the reference is to the make-up of the electorate, not the ‘ownership’ of the schools.  Separate schools are a civil institution, governed by a representative assembly that is elected by citizens.  Separate schools are not owned by the Roman Catholic Church and separate school trustees owe no legal, fiduciary, or practical duty to the Church.

For historic reasons, separate school education operates in Alberta, Ontario and Saskatchewan.  Quebec had separate schools until 1997, at which time it eliminated them.  Newfoundland and Labrador had a somewhat similar system (of seven denominational school systems) from the time it entered Confederation (1949) until 1997, when it eliminated all denominational systems and replaced them with a single public school system.  Manitoba had separate schools until 1890, when the provincial legislature eliminated them.  Other Canadian provinces (B.C., New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island) have never had separate school education.  Parochial schools, owned, funded and operated by the Roman Catholic Church operate in all these provinces.

Separate school education is unique to Canada.

2. Private schools are owned and operated by a corporate entity such as a church, society, or corporation.  In Alberta private schools must be operated by a not-for-profit entity, but in other jurisdictions private schools may be operated by for-profit corporations.  (It is important to note that not-for-profit status only prevents the distribution of profits to shareholders:  it does not prevent the payment of large salaries or other benefits to staff, board members, and others.)

In Alberta, and this is typical of some other jurisdictions, the Department of Education resolves all private schools into one of two categories.  Registered private schools meet very few and low standards, and receive no provincial government funding.  Among other consequences, their students are not eligible to receive a high school graduation certificate or any other certification from Alberta Education.  Approved private schools meet more and higher standards, including: employing certificated teachers only, following the Alberta Program of Studies and curriculum or an approved alternative, participating in provincial student evaluation programs, etc.  They receive provincial government funding and students are within the government’s certification and graduation program.

3. Parochial schools are found in many provinces or states, but not in Alberta, Saskatchewan, or Ontario.  Parochial schools are really private schools, but the term is applied exclusively to private schools that are owned by the Roman Catholic Church (usually through the agency of a society or foundation).  A similar school owned by any other denomination would be referred to as a private school.

4. The characteristics of charter schools are less consistent from place to place.  In Alberta a charter school is one that is owned and operated by a society.  The society must demonstrate to Alberta Education that they have a unique approach to education that merits practical demonstration through the operation of a school.  Alberta Education grants a charter for a fixed term, with the option to renew, and funds the operation of charter schools on the same basis as public schools.  In Alberta the number of charter schools that may be allowed is limited to 15 at any time.  The Government of Alberta refers to charter schools as public schools, but charter schools do not have some of the vital characteristics of a public school.  Notably, they are not governed by a Board of Trustees elected by the entire electorate.  They do not accept students without pre-conditions of any kind.

5. Home schooling is the education of children at home, under the tutelage  of their parents.  In Alberta, every home schooled child must be registered with a public or separate school jurisdiction and the jurisdiction receives funding to offset the costs of instructional supplies for, and supervising the education of, the child(ren).  Supervision ranges from telephone and/or email contact with the parents to personal visits.  The supervising jurisdiction almost always shares the provincial government funding with the parents, according to some agreement.  Home schooling parents are only rarely certificated teachers.  They may or may not follow the Alberta Program of Studies and/or the Alberta curriculum.

6. Distance education is somewhat like home schooling, in that the student is at home (or in a hospital or similar situation).  Material and instruction, however, is provided by Alberta Education, primarily in the form of internet inter-action and telephone calls.


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  • What was the Quebec experience, given the dominance of the Catholic church in that province? What lessons can we learn from them?