Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 17, 2000
Experts cool to school plan
Boundaries scheme could pave way to abolishing separate schools, they say
By LELLA BLUMER
Special to the WCR
Some of Alberta's strongest advocates for Catholic education are urging a cautious approach to expanding separate school district boundaries.
A proposal jointly developed by public and separate school boards recommends that 16 Catholic separate school jurisdictions be established, covering almost the entire province. Existing Catholic boards will have exclusive authority, through board resolution, to expand their service area to match the new boundaries.
"The goal from the beginning was to fill in the province, and make Catholic education available across Alberta," says Lois Burke-Gaffney, president of the Alberta Catholic School Trustees' Association (ACSTA).
But the new proposal is too simplistic, says Dr. Frank Peters of the University of Alberta's faculty of educational policy studies.
"It doesn't recognize the complexity of the issues involved" on both a constitutional and practical level, says Peters, who has written and presented extensively on Catholic education.
Enfranchisement - the right to vote and run for election - is a real concern, he says. If Catholics in newly-expanded areas don't get a chance to vote on whether to be part of the separate school district, it's a disenfranchisement, and requires a constitutional change, not just a legislative one, Peters says.
It may not be well received by the community either, he adds.
"If you lose out in the democratic process, that's one thing . . . but if you're not even involved in the democratic process . . . that's a different take."
Dr. Robert Carney, professor emeritus at the U of A, former deputy minister and one-time executive director of ACSTA, is equally cautious.
"The (current) process of (separate school district) formation, although clumsy, protects the constitutional rights of the minority, and because of that the province has provided the right to Catholic education for children in rural areas. That shouldn't be given away unless there are guarantees."
But former East Central superintendent Dr. George Bunz says that although enfranchisement is important, it doesn't necessarily have to happen in the same way it has in the past.
The proposal specifies that Catholics living in areas which become part of an expanded separate school district can choose to continue sending their children to the public school and supporting the public district with their taxes.
It's a way of looking at enfranchisement "with new eyes," says Bunz, who has taken part in an extensive number of separate school district formations and led ACSTA's initial research into the issue, although he was not part of the final report.
"If people are not forced to attend or support the separate school district, then I don't see a problem."
The main concern at the time the study was undertaken was the cumbersome nature of current regulations governing the formation process, Bunz says.
"You would have to go through the process . . . to really understand what is involved," Bunz says.
"We would literally have to walk through fields and over fences to post signs. It was like in the days of the horse and buggy. When you think about it, it's such an archaic way of doing things."
Peters agrees. "The building block method of formation is one I've never liked, and it doesn't need to stay, but it is less dictatorial" than what is being proposed, he says.
And he predicts that leaving the decision in the hands of school boards won't make the process less confrontational.
"How does the local board determine it is responding to the Catholic community and not to a small segment thereof? It won't eliminate conflict in communities or families; if anything, it's going to get more complicated."
Both Peters and Carney are also concerned about the "constitutional can of worms" the new system may open.
"You don't want to pave the way for the government to say that the easiest thing to do is to abolish separate schools. We've seen that all it takes is a resolution passed in the provincial legislature and a vote in the House of Commons and the Senate," Peters says.
"The die is cast as far as what the federal government will do," Carney agrees, now that a precedent has been set in Newfoundland and Quebec.
The benefits of the proposal don't outweigh the disturbance it will cause, Peters concludes.
While Bunz agrees it will be difficult for some boards that have just become settled after regionalizing a few years ago, "the political aspects of this have to be secondary," he says. "You have to consider whether this will be beneficial to students."
For Carney, it comes down to a question of who wants the change most.
"I know why the department would want it, because it is tidier, more efficient and easily administered. But I would advise great caution before (Catholic school boards) agree with it."