What exactly is separate school education...

David King, former Minister of Education, Alberta (1979 – 1986)

Separate school education and its implications for citizens -- and democracy -- is widely misunderstood.

Kevin Feehen, former legal counsel for the Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association, wrote these words in the fall of 2008 (Catholic Dimension, Fall, 2008. p. 8).  “So let Catholic education be ‘separate’, different, radical and based upon a concept of education fundamentally opposed to that of the public school system.”

What does it mean for Alberta that the provincial government completely funds and otherwise endorses a system of education that is “based on a concept of education fundamentally opposed to that of the public school system”?

Separate school education is founded on denominational (religious) differences and, when examining civil democratic societies all around the world, it is peculiar to three Canadian provinces — Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario.  In these three provinces one Christian minority has the constitutional right to establish a separate school system that is parallel to the public school system in the community although it exists for fundamentally different purposes than the public school system.

Separate school education in Alberta is substantially like, but not identical to, separate school education in Saskatchewan and Ontario.  The key difference is that in Alberta the only recognized Christian minority that may form a separate school system is Catholic:  in 2012 the former Progressive Conservative government eliminated the only operating Protestant Separate School District (St. Albert), and related legislative changes make it impossible to establish a Protestant Separate School District in Alberta.  That possibility remains in Ontario and Saskatchewan.

In Alberta, the constitution provides that members of the Catholic faith (the deemed minority faith) may go through a process to establish a local jurisdiction of separate school education.  This has happened in virtually every urban centre in Alberta, and in many rural areas.  The result, where separate school districts have been formed, is two local jurisdictions of government for K – 12 education:  a public school jurisdiction and a Roman Catholic separate school jurisdiction.

The term “Roman Catholic separate school jurisdiction” may suggest that the system is owned by the Roman Catholic Church, but that is not the case.  A Catholic separate school jurisdiction is a civil authority, not a Church authority.  The trustees who govern a separate school jurisdiction are elected on the same day as public school trustees and by the same process (governed by the province’s Local Authorities Election Act).  What distinguishes the two elections is simply that only professed Catholics may vote for separate school trustees and everyone who does not profess to be Catholic may only vote in the election for public school trustees.

Although the electorate for a separate school system is entirely Catholic, the Catholic Church does not own separate school education or finance it in any way whatsoever, and separate school trustees have no legal, financial or other obligations to the Church.  (Separate schools in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario are not ‘parochial schools’.)

Where two education jurisdictions operate side-by-side only people of the Catholic faith may be electors (and ratepayers) of the separate school district.  (They may choose not to declare their support for the separate school district, in which case they become public school supporters [electors and ratepayers]).

While Catholics may choose to be supporters of the public school district, non-Catholics do not have the same choice:  they may not opt to become supporters and electors (or trustees) of the separate school district, even if they have children or grandchildren enrolled in the separate school jurisdiction  (The premise is that no number of Catholics, — because they are the minority — could overwhelm the nature of the public school district, but a large influx of non-Catholics — because they are the majority — could conceivably overwhelm the nature of the [minority] separate school district.)

Both public and separate school districts are fully funded by the provincial government.  There is no funding discrimination for or against either system.  Local property taxation is a feature of funding for K – 12 education in Alberta, and many Albertans believe that their property taxes, whether they are Roman Catholic or non-Roman Catholic, go to the support of the system educating their children.  Not so.  All property tax collected in support of education is transferred to the provincial government, which apportions it (via the Alberta School Foundation Fund) to both public and separate school boards on a per pupil or per program basis, without regard for the source.

(Roman Catholics can sign a declaration to specify that the taxes on the property they own must go to the separate school system.  The operating assumption is that few Roman Catholics will actually do this, consequently, the actual ASFF apportionment to each separate school jurisdiction yields more than the amount that might be designated for any separate school board in the province.)

Given that two education jurisdictions exist in a place, non-Catholics may enroll in a separate school only at the discretion of the separate school board.  Although many Albertans think of both systems as being public in everything but name, and therefore equally accessible, that is not the case.  Non-Catholics have no legal right to be enrolled in a separate school district, and it does happen that non-Catholics are denied enrollment in separate schools.  Causes for non-enrollment include: additional costs associated with special education; discipline and distraction issues; parents/guardians who are difficult to deal with; etc.

Some Albertans who are not Catholic have believed that they can designate their property taxes in support of the local separate school district and thereby create a right for themselves to send their children to a separate school.  This belief is incorrect.  The designation, to separate schools, of property taxes from property owned by a non-Catholic is deemed to be an administrative error that does not create a right for the non-Catholic.

So, Roman Catholic separate schools are not simply “public schools by another name”.  They represent a “State-Church” connection that favours one denomination.  The favour is denied to every other Christian denomination as well as to those of every other faith.  One question that needs to be asked is whether favouring one denomination is favouring one too many.  Another question that needs to be asked is whether State sponsored separate schools are consistent with our expectations and aspirations for Alberta at the beginning of the 21st century.

Kevin Feehen, Counsel for the Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association, wrote these words in the fall of 2008 (Catholic Dimension, Fall, 2008. p. 8).  “So let Catholic education be ‘separate’, different, radical and based upon a concept of education fundamentally opposed to that of the public school system.”

What does it mean for Alberta that the provincial government completely funds and otherwise endorses a system of education that is “based on a concept of education fundamentally opposed to that of the public school system”?

 


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  • So, if I’m reading this correctly: as a non-Catholic I can request that my children be accepted into a Catholic school but I can not vote in that school board’s elections for trustees not can I run as a trustee because I’m a non- Catholic?
  • Don’t want t be “that guy” but: 9th paragraph, “While Catholic” should read “While Catholics”.