What exactly is separate school education, and what does it mean for Albertans?

Most Albertans misunderstand separate school education and its implications for citizens.

Separate school education is founded on denominational (religious) differences and, all around the world, it is peculiar to three Canadian provinces — Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario.  The balance of this post is about separate school education in Alberta, which is substantially like, but not identical to, separate school education in Saskatchewan and Ontario.

In Alberta, the constitution currently provides that members of the Roman Catholic faith (the minority faith) may go through a process to establish a local jurisdiction of (Roman Catholic) 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 district and a separate school district.

Where two education jurisdictions operate simultaneously, only people of the Roman 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 Roman Catholic may choose to be supporters of the public school district, non-Roman Catholics do not have the same choice:  they may not opt to become supporters and electors of the separate school district.  (The premise is that no number of Roman 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.)

School trustees are periodically elected to govern, respectively, public and separate school districts.  In both cases the elections are governed by the Local Authorities Election Act, and in both cases the work of elected trustees is governed by the Education Act.  All teachers employed by separate school districts are members of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, the professional and bargaining body that also represents all the public school teachers in the province.

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 and the actual ASFF apportionment will yield 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-Roman 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-Roman Catholics have no legal right to be enrolled in a separate school district, and it does happen that non-Roman 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 Roman 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 in a way that is denied to every other denomination.  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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