Can we open a Catholic Faith program within the public school system?

(For the EPSB Board Meeting Feb 14th, 2016) Request For Information: Could the Administration inform us whether or not the Minister of Education or (School Act) would permit a public school system to create a Catholic Faith Alternative Program or a Catholic School within the Public School System?
 
The issue of why we don’t have a Catholic program within our EPSB constellation of alternative and choice programs is a question I am frequently asked by my constituents and I have to admit I don’t have a clear answer.
Is a public school board permitted to open a Catholic Faith Alternative Program?
I informally asked the question when I was first elected trustee in 2010, and was told that previous governments and Ministers would not permit Public school boards to create Catholic programs, but puzzlingly they have allowed Catholic districts to offer duplicate programs that are also offered by Public and Francophone school boards.
Before the Board of Trustees directs staff time or dollars on program creation or policy amendments, we should ensure that the Minister of Education would allow us to create a Catholic Faith Alternative program. Edmonton Public would not be in a position to confirm demand for such a program until parents can be assured that such a program can be offered.  The first step in this journey would be understand the direction of the provincial legislature (our formal process for these inquiries is called a “Request for Information”
 
We are proud of our legacy as a district of choice, including our existing excellent faith program choices. EPSB offers more than 30 alternative programming options. Students enrolled in alternative programming receive instruction determined by Alberta Education, with a focus on artsathleticslanguage and culturefaith-based or teaching philosophy.
We have faith-based Christian programs such as Millwoods Christian or the Logos (Christian faith) Program. Talmud Torah offers an integrated program of Judaic and secular studies in a Hebrew bilingual setting. Sakinah Circle programming is based on a philosophy of education derived from the Qur’anic (Islam) worldview.
Currently, There are thousands of students who attend Catholic Schools who aren’t Catholic. In the past, attendance to Catholic School Districts were restricted to only students who were Catholic (baptism certificates were demanded) but this is no longer the case and families, regardless of faith, often move freely between districts. For example, Edmonton Catholic Schools own website states:
Non-Catholics and other non-resident students may enroll at Edmonton Catholic Schools given the adequate availability of resources such as space and suitability of program.

That means of the approximately 40,000 students going to Edmonton Catholic Schools, not all of them are Catholic but might be convinced with the right programming to be included in the 92,000 Edmonton Public Students. If even a few of them chose to return, that could be a significant influx of students and would be especially valuable in mature communities with lower-enrollment schools. Province wide, it could be even more significant especially for rural communities with dwindling populations.

For decades we have supported choices within public school districts. It is important to note that this initiative does not call for the abolition or defunding of the 17 Catholic School Boards in Alberta, but rather contemplates the potential for public school boards to grow and expand faith program offerings. This is no different than EPSB operating French Immersion programs which do not challenge the existence of the constitutionally protected Francophone School boards. The Edmonton Public School Board supports programs of choice where there is a demand and if anything this would mean more faith and more choice, not less!
If permitted by the provincial government, any public school district could create a new program of choice and offer greater selection to parents. This would be especially timely in areas where new schools are in high demand or in mature communities that may be contemplating requesting replacement schools. There may be huge operational and capital savings to the provincial government in future if this idea were further explored. That means more money for front-line education rather than duplicated administration or half-empty or aging schools.
Public school districts are funded on a per-pupil basis, and we need to remain competitive and continue to demonstrate efficiency through economies of scale and administrative effeciencies. As Trustees, we would demonstrate responsiveness to the interests of students, families, and communities. Picture a new Edmonton public school opening with a few classrooms set aside for a Catholic Faith Alternative program— we would be serving the needs of all Edmontonians and potentially saving the province millions of dollars! We would be able to save on capital costs by attracting more students whose only choice might be a distant bus trip to the ECSD system.

There would be significant cost savings to the Alberta government if public schools could offer a Public and Catholic program under one physical and metaphorical roof. If we were able to offer another program, we would be able to save on capital costs by attracting more students whose only choice might be the ECSD system.

What about a Catholic Faith course? If we weren’t able to offer a full Catholic program, maybe as a first step, we could consider the establishment of a Locally Developed “Catholic Faith” course that would provide more choice and welcome more Catholic families back into the Public school system?
What could this mean for the future of school construction? As we look ahead to submitting our annual capital planning request list for new schools, and I reflect on provincial commitments to transparency and sunshine lists, I look forward to exploring the idea of how decisions are made to allocate Public or Catholic schools to new communities and how evidence of parent intent is determined. With the archaic notion of directing one’s taxes to the Public or Catholic school system having no bearing anymore on funding (it’s all pooled and directed based on enrolment) it is time we got creative in finding innovative ways to improve program delivery while demonstrating innovation and efficiency in the use of our education dollars. But that is likely a inquiry for a later date when we discuss our capital planning process.
While we are engaged in a dialogue on curriculum redesign, maybe it’s time to have the bigger question about program or system redesign. To be clear, these are the questions and observations of one trustee, and until a formal vote is taken at the Board table, no program can be created.
So will we be allowed to proceed? Once I receive an answer I will report back.

What do you think? Is this a good idea to explore further? How can we make sure our education system is inclusive, responsive, and efficient?

Michael@michaeljanz.ca