Public School Boards must intervene in the Theodore court case

The Theodore case is one of the most important educational court cases in Canadian history. The Theodore case is clearly applicable to Alberta, as both Alberta and Saskatchewan are governed by the same legislation. This is significantly different from the Catholic trustees intervening in the Trinity Case for reasons outlined here. Spending money on a legal challenge is not something we take lightly. I believe as a community we should be very proud of our public schools and as a community must exhaust any means necessary-- including litigation-- to stand up for the right of our students, staff and families....

As reported, public school boards are seeking intervenor status in the Theodore case to defend public education. I applaud this move. Every public student, staff, and family needs to understand how their rights are being violated by the continuation of government favouritism towards separate Catholic schools.Public school districts are inclusive by law and must welcome every student to a designated school, no matter their religion, academic achievement, special needs, or other reasons. Conversely, separate Catholic schools selectively enrol students at their discretion.

  • We must stand up for choice for the three quarters of Albertans who are public school supporters. I believe the first school build in every community should be a public school. When school space is available, public schools can provide programs of choice, such as French, Mandarin, or Cogito. Research shows that families choose schools primarily for proximity and programs. Faith is much lower on the list as a consideration.
  • We must stand up for our the 70% of teachers who are denied employment opportunities because they are not Catholic. I believe that publicly funded professions, especially teachers, should not be allowed to discriminate based on religion or other protected grounds contrary to the Alberta Human Rights Act or the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
  • To be clear, the Theodore case before us is not the big question of unification, abolishing, or privatizing separate Catholic school boards. The question is, what exactly is the right to funding for public/separate boards?

Here are a few reasons why intervention to defend public school staff, students, and families is critical:

1. THE STATE'S DUTY OF RELIGIOUS NEUTRALITY IS BEING VIOLATED TO THE DETRIMENT OF PUBLIC STUDENTS, STAFF, & FAMILIES:

The status quo funding model in the education system perpetuates discrimination against public school families. Here are a few quotes from the Saskatchewan case by Justice Layh from the ruling:

It is important to remember that Catholic schools are not private/independent schools. They are not church schools. They are fully-public funded schools that are separate only in the electors who comprise the board. They are civil democratic institutions owned by the community. 

The preferential treatment of Catholic schools in Alberta and continued funded "evangelization" of non-Catholics denies resources to public districts. While I expect an animated response from the Catholic trustees, I'm mindful of that saying, "when you are used to privilege, fairness feels like oppression." 

 2. CHOICE FOR NON-CATHOLIC FAMILIES & TEACHERS:

The status quo is unfair to public school students, staff, and families and erodes choice for non-Catholic families.

The first school build in every community should be a public school. Public schools can offer programs, choice, and opportunities accessible to all, unlike separate schools which can accept and reject students based on faith.

Any qualified teacher of any faith can teach in a public school. This is not the same for separate Catholic schools. Catholics are eligible for 100% of teaching jobs in Alberta, but a muslim, baptist, or unitarian is only eligible for 70% of jobs.

3. FIGHTING FOR FAIR FUNDING:

More students means more revenue. Each district is funded on a per pupil basis. More teaching jobs for teachers who are Roman Catholic (others need not apply). This perpetuates discrimination against non-Catholic teachers denied employment opportunities. 

More Catholic schools and portables means more space for more students. ECSD says 25% of their students are not Catholic, yet they continue to argue that they need more schools, knowing full well that what is needed are schools with programs, not Catholic schools. The growing communities need new public schools, and in their absence, families choose a separate Catholic school.

Let's also remember that all other religious schools in Alberta are treated as private schools. Mormon, Muslim, Baptist, Lutheran, Evangelical they all receive zero capital dollars for new schools or modernizations. The separate Catholic boards are the only ones receiving a fully-loaded new building for the evangelization of their faith and don't have to pay any supplemental tuition. 

4. SEPARATE SCHOOLS BELONG TO THE ALBERTA GOVERNMENT AND MAY BE TRANSFERRED BETWEEN DISTRICTS:

School boards are creatures of provincial legislation. Schools are assets of the provincial government. The Government could direct at any time one school district to turn them over to another. It is critical that the government not only stop discriminatory funding, but when the Theodore ruling is to be implemented, that they also turn over the corresponding number of school spaces back to public districts. In some cases, this could represent 25% of the school inventory.

ourIDEA put out a very thoughtful proposal that the province should stop building new schools for separate Catholic boards until the Theodore case is resolved:

  • Earlier this year a judge in Saskatchewan ruled that operational funding to Catholic schools for non-Catholic students must cease. We believe the same principle applies to the capital funding of separate school facilities for any non-Catholic enrolment in separate schools.
  • Alternately, ourIDEA calls on the provincial government to issue a Moratorium pending the completion of a comprehensive and transparent review of the criteria that determine approval of new school construction. The construction of new separate schools is typically approved without any evidence of non-Catholic enrolment in separate schools and such enrolment is discretionary. Separate school jurisdictions should be required to transfer non-Catholic students to the public school system to accommodate new Catholic enrolment, before any new separate school is built.

5. THIS CASE COULD SAVE RURAL EDUCATION:

This case is vital to rural Alberta communities lacking the number of children to sustain two half-empty aging schools across from one another. Alberta does not have the students or the funding to replace or sustain them on a one to one basis. Are we committed to a high-quality public school in every community or not? There is only one educational tax dollar in Alberta and we must all be mindful of funding needs. The Public School Boards Association of Alberta put out a report called "The Cost of Choice" which directly comments on what happens when we put systems (or one religious faith) ahead of students. 

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