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Charting Educational JusticeCharting Educational Justice

Charting Educational Justice

Brett Fawcett argues Alberta charter schools should be free to operate on religious grounds to meet the just vision of Canada’s founding constitutional vision.

Brett Fawcett
5 minute read

What does a just education look like?

We talk a lot about what it means to provide a quality education to our children, but perhaps we’ve forgotten that you can’t have a good education without it also being a just education. In virtue ethicist terms, this would be an education that provides you with everything that you are owed.

To ensure students receive this, Alberta (and, ideally, every other province) should have charter schools that are allowed to be religious.

The big news about education in Alberta right now is the controversial K-6 draft curriculum recently unveiled by its UCP government. Critics claim that Alberta’s reputation as a world leader in education—reflected in its high PISA scores—will be threatened if this curriculum is implemented.

But whether or not the curriculum concerns are sound, the source of the “Alberta advantage” in education is likely due, not only to its programs and studies, but also to Alberta having the most educational pluralism of any province in Canada. Importantly, many of the options for schooling that Alberta’s parents enjoy (including independent and alternative schools) are religious in nature.

The origins of this pluralism are found right at the origins of the province, in s. 17 of the Alberta Act 1905. This states that Catholics (and, surprisingly to some, Protestants) have the right to their own fully taxpayer-funded separate schools. S. 17 (and its identical counterpart in the Saskatchewan Act 1905) is an extension of s. 93 of the Constitution Act 1867, which protects separate school rights in provinces that enshrined these rights in law at the time they joined confederation.

S. 93 was originally penned by Thomas D’Arcy McGee. Reading the speeches he gave about school rights makes it instantly clear that his goal in penning this provision was making sure families had access to a just education.

For McGee, separate schooling was an issue of religious liberty. Believers were conscience-bound to bring up their children in their faith. But the government forcing parents to pay taxes for common schools on top of the tuition they needed to pay at denominational schools made it financially impossible for many parents to enroll their children in Catholic institutions. This was tantamount to limiting their exercise of religion.

Religious parents, in McGee’s view, “are entitled in a free state to have their religious freedom respected by the secular authority.” This meant having the right to their own taxpayer-funded schools. Because there would be no tuition fees to serve as a barrier, they would be accessible to all who wanted them. This is to give parents and children the freedom they are owed; this, for McGee, is justice.

In addition to accessibility, s. 93’s protection of separate schools in certain provinces has been recognized by the courts as having the goal of ensuring that Catholic schools are thoroughly permeated by Catholicism, rather than simply being schools that happen to have religion classes alongside the normal core subjects. To achieve this permeation, s. 93 guarantees that separate schools are controlled by boards consisting entirely of Catholic trustees elected by their co-religionists.

In other words, in order to fulfill religious parents’ just rights to schools that effectively pass on their faith to their children, Catholic separate schools have accessibility (attained by full government funding) and autonomy (attained by having a separate school board).

But, of course, there is an inequity here, since only Catholics enjoy this constitutional right. Although Alberta provides many options for religious parents, none achieve autonomy and accessibility to the same degree that separate schools do. Independent religious schools have autonomy, but not full accessibility (since they still charge tuition), while alternative religious schools have accessibility, but not autonomy (since they are under the control of a secular board).

However, if other religious communities could have their own charter schools, accessibility and autonomy could be achieved.

Alberta is the only province with charter schools, which were introduced in 1994 and are currently regulated by ss. 24-28 of Alberta’s Education Act. Charter schools are based around “a learning style, a teaching style, approach or philosophy or pedagogy that is not already being offered by a board,” a philosophy which must be laid out in the school’s charter statement. To ensure its pedagogical vision is implemented, each charter school is run by a “society or company” which is independent of “public” boards, but works in tandem with them. In exchange for a certain degree of accountability, they receive full public funding and cannot charge tuition.

If a religious society opened a charter school with faith-based education in its charter, that school would enjoy accessibility and autonomy. In other words, any believing community could effectively have its own separate schools.

There’s only one problem: The Education Act explicitly prohibits this. S. 26(6) declares peremptorily, “A charter school shall not be affiliated with a religious faith or denomination.”

What is the reason for this abrupt restriction?

Good question. It’s hard to find one.

The best explanation seems to be that it’s only there because the American charter school laws that the Albertan legislation was based on already included this prohibition. But the American regulations were written this way in deference to the First Amendment, which forbids any government support of religious institutions. Alberta is not bound by any such strictures--as the existence of separate and alternative schools proves--so this exclusionary rule makes no sense here.

Not only that, but defining what exactly counts as a “religion” for these purposes (or in any context) is difficult. Does it mean a form of spiritual practice that involves beliefs in a supernatural realm? If so, then it would seem like Mother Earth’s Children’s Charter School, which is based on Indigenous teachings about the medicine wheel, is a religious charter school. Yet it is allowed to operate. This ambiguity has forced a charter school like Almadina (which has a strongly Arabic culture) to defend itself against the charge of covertly being a Muslim school, when all that should matter is whether it effectively serves and cares for its students.

S. 93 is part of the constitutional genius of Canada, institutionalizing a genuine multiculturalism that has helped our nation become such a success story of cooperation and co-existence. Extending its provisions to Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, and other minority religious communities by dropping S. 26(6) would strengthen Alberta’s educational and civil pluralism, allow more avenues for schools that train students in the pursuit of God, and be a good example for other provinces to imitate.

Or, to put it more succinctly: It would be just.

Brett Fawcett is the author of Unchartered Territory: A Historical and Critical Analysis of Alberta’s Prohibition on Religious Charter Schools.

Convivium publishes texts that do not necessarily reflect the views held by Cardus, the Convivium team, or its editors. In the spirit of discussion, dialogue, and debate, we ask readers to bear in mind that publication does not equal endorsement. Thanks for reading. Join the conversation!

Topics: Education Justice Religion Family Government Faith Ethics Children

Brett Fawcett

Brett Fawcett has degrees in theology and education. He has written for the Edmonton Journal, the Western Catholic Reporter, the Prairie Messenger, the Lethbridge Herald, C2C Journal, the Huffington Post, and Grandin Media. He has co-authored a book on pastoral care for persons with schizophrenia, Listening to the Right Voices, and recently published a collection of his writings, Spitting Towards the West: Catholic Ruminations from the Edge of the Autism Spectrum.

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