A petition that aims to give Albertans the ability to decide whether to dissolve separate school boards has garnered more than 560 signatures since it was launched earlier this month.
“This is such an important issue that the decision should not be made by a party or a government. I think it should be made by the people of Alberta,” said David King, who served as Alberta’s education minister in the 1970s and 1980s.
King launched the petition, www.separateschooleducation.ca, on Dec. 1. It’s calling on the Alberta government to make separate school boards a referendum issue in the next provincial election.
“I am concerned about us having parallel school systems in the province when the one track is a privilege for a few that is not available to many [other minority religious groups]. I’m also concerned about the impact that that has on the cohesiveness on the communities and I’m concerned about what it represents to children in terms of their expectations of the adult community,” he told the Gazette.
Alberta has 17 separate school systems and is one of only three provinces — including Ontario and Saskatchewan — that gives them public funds.
The right of the religious minority, either Protestant or Roman Catholic, to establish a separate school district is currently enshrined in legislation. However, the province is currently in the process of updating the School Act.
According to a proposed framework, Alberta Education is considering changing the legislation to grant the minister the authority to change the designation of a public school jurisdiction to a separate school jurisdiction, and vice versa.
“The question is why does one minority faith get that privilege when it is not available to Mormons or Buddhists or to Hindus or to Sikhs or to anyone else? Why in Edmonton is there a Roman Catholic separate school district but not a Seventh-day Adventist separate school system or a Jewish school system?” asked King.
“We’re living with something that was determined by the outcome of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham 250 years ago and 2,500 kilometres away, and I’m just not sure that that’s a good basis for continuing the system at the beginning of the 21st century.”
St. Albert Protestant school board chair Joan Trettler said King’s public stance on the issue took her by surprise.
“It’s not a total surprise but I didn’t realize where he was going to take it but this is his vision of how he thinks things should go,” Trettler said.
In St. Albert, the Protestant school board has separate school status and exists alongside the Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division, which is considered the public board.
“We believe that separate school boards have more rights than public school boards,” said Trettler.
She said a Supreme Court decision in the late 1990s established that public boards do not have mirror rights as separate boards.
“According to the Alberta Act, we have the right to exist so when taxpayers vote us into existence, we have the right to be, if you like, and we have the right to elect trustees,” she said.
Trettler said the Protestant school board also has the right to collect taxes, although this has taken on more of a symbolic meaning over the last few years.
“We don’t set the rate of the tax,” she said of the education levy the province controls, “but we still do actually vote on the tax. Those are rights that we feel are very important,” she said.
Trettler said the board’s history is important because it reflects changes in St. Albert — originally founded as a Roman Catholic mission — as it grew.
“When our district was founded, it reflected some of the changes in St. Albert as we became more of a suburban town and that’s the basis then of our district … to be the Protestant separate board as opposed to continuing on being with the Catholic board,” she said.
If separate schools were dissolved, King said parents would still be able to choose where to send their children.
“That’s manifest by creating private schools. There are Jewish private schools and Lutheran private schools and Muslim private schools. The disestablishment of separate school education would not impair anybody’s choice in the least,” he said.
He also argues that, without separate school boards, the system would be more inclusive of all faiths.
“Well it would be, wouldn’t it?” said Trettler.
“There is lots to be said for his arguments, the question is whether or not people in Alberta would want to change?”