PHOTOS: Edmonton Public School Board Chair Michael Janz, at the podium and on the job. Below: Canadian Taxpayers Federation Communications Vice-President Scott Henning, Parents for Choice in Education Director Donna Trimble, and the Edmonton Christian High School, which is run under the auspices of the EPSB.

Conservative politicians, their vocal supporters, private school operators, separate school system officials, charter school advocates, administrators from such institutions, and parents of home schooled children have all been chanting the mantra of “competition is good” for so long most of us can hardly remember hearing anything else.

So the reaction to Edmonton Public School Board Chair Michael Janz’s suggestion last week that the public system should offer its own Roman Catholic education specialty program has been interesting, to say the least.

They hate it!

It turns out that competition is always good … except when it isn’t! Who knew?

Mr. Janz’s idea, in a nutshell, was that with its long history of successfully overseeing specialty programs that include Protestant, Jewish and Muslim religious education, maybe the time has come for the Edmonton Public School Board to offer its own optional Roman Catholic program.

“We are proud of our legacy as a district of choice, including our existing excellent faith program choices,” Mr. Janz wrote in his personal blog a week ago. “EPSB offers more than 30 alternative programming options.”

He suggested in a radio interview that letting public schools offer Catholic programs could over time end up saving the provincial education system an awful lot of money – an important point, as noted in this space last week, at a moment in Alberta’s history when parallel public school systems are forced to compete for scarce tax dollars and right-wing politicians constantly raise hell about too much spending on public services, including education.

And yet (astonishingly?) the reactions to Mr. Janz’s hard-to-refute observations by the advocates of competition have been, shall we say, inconsistent. Moreover, elected and self-appointed opponents of official waste have been oddly silent.

Consider Catholic educators, hitherto fierce advocates of the competition argument. Their position seems to be: Only we can do it right, so you should get lost.

The Alberta Catholic School Trustees Association weighed in almost immediately, with a news release stating, “Catholic education is not an alternative program offered in a secular school but a worldview, encompassing a Christian perspective, imbued with the Spirit, taught by faith witnesses who are more than teachers but sacraments to God’s grace, and Catholicism is permeated throughout the curriculum, as well as school life in general, be it through sports or extracurricular activities.”

“We have Catholic schools that serve Alberta and those choosing a Catholic permeated education,” the release said elsewhere. “We believe Catholic religion courses belong in fully permeated Catholic schools.”

As an aside, I am certain many Protestant Christians, Jews and Muslims view education in much the same way, yet many parents from each of those faiths don’t seem to have a problem with the choice offered by the EPSB. Ditto for Catholic parents at the public school board south of Edmonton that has offered optional Catholic instruction for 20 years.

ACSTA insists in its “fundamental principles,” by the way, that “free-standing Catholic schools on separate sites” must “remain the standard for Catholic educational facilities.” It further insists, “No Catholic school board should be pressured into any type of partnership or joint-use arrangement. …”

Indeed, ACSTA argues that such existing precedents should not be considered precedents! Well, so much for saving money on infrastructure.

The Catholic Church has not yet spoken on this issue, but when it does, it can be expected to say much the same thing.

Meanwhile, consider the position of Parents for Choice in Education – an organization representing private schools, home schoolers, religious schools and lately, apparently, Catholic schools too – which is so committed to choice it has the word right in its name.

In a blog on the group’s website, Parents for Choice Executive Director Donna Trimble excoriated Mr. Janz for wanting to offer the wrong kind of choice, accusing him of using “deceptive” language to hoodwink parents “to bring more students and educators under the control of the Edmonton Public School Board.” They claim “Edmonton Public School Board would like funding stripped from all other school boards.”

So what PCE calls “genuine choice” requires, I guess, that the EPSB not be allowed to offer a choice for fear it be so successful it would degrade what the group calls “healthy competition in the education marketplace.” Hmmmm.

Are they afraid more parents would choose the public school alternative, as has indeed been the case with the EPSB’s Logos program and Edmonton Christian School?

“Many citizens choose to appoint their taxes to the separate school board because they believe that Catholic education is unique and important, and they want to support a school board authority dedicated to genuine Catholic education,” the PCE blog said. This ignores the fact that since 1994, when the sainted Ralph Klein was premier of Alberta, all school taxes have been pooled and doled out again by the Government of Alberta on the basis of per-student grants.

The Edmonton Journal, another tireless advocate of “choice,” except when it isn’t an advocate of choice, used a utilitarian argument – parents should be denied the choice of a public school Catholic option because they already have the choice of a Catholic school option.

As the Journal’s anonymous editorialist put it in the traditionally plummy editorial voice, Mr. Janz’s proposal “represents an unnecessary duplication of service on a citywide scale.” So the Journal seems to be saying this choice shouldn’t be allowed because more expensive and elaborate duplication already exists.

Finally (for now) there is the strange behaviour of Canada’s self-appointed “tax watchdog,” the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which claims to be dedicated to eliminating waste and keeping taxes low. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that a huge parallel tax-supported agency duplicating the job done by another such group would be a natural target for the CTF?

The CTF boasts its operatives “field hundreds of media interviews each month, hold press conferences and issue regular news releases, commentaries, online postings and publications.” They also “speak at functions, make presentations to government, meet with politicians, and organize petition drives, events and campaigns to mobilize citizens to affect public policy change.”

Yet what do we hear about school board duplication from the CTF? Crickets!

I asked CTF Communications Vice-President Scott Hennig if the group had a position on separate school boards and he told me media haven’t asked.

I also checked with Paige MacPherson, the CTF’s Alberta director, and she had much the same response: “Nope, media haven’t asked me and I haven’t taken a position on the issue.”

But isn’t this a natural issue for a group like the CTF? She responded: “It’s not something we’ve asked our supporters, given the likelihood of it happening seeming extremely small.”

So is the likelihood of any Canadian senior government balancing a budget any time soon, but I don’t recall the CTF being so shy about that! Maybe the media should get off its collective duff ask them some questions.

It’s funny, isn’t it? Every one of the choice advocates mentioned here apparently wants to ensure the Edmonton Public School Board doesn’t have the opportunity to offer parents and students this choice.

What are they afraid of? That EPSB will do too good a job?

As for the CTF, well, they’re all for choice too – as long as the public sector isn’t involved.

In fairness, given the passions this issue arouses, the CTFers may be wise to try to keep their heads down. Naturally, politicians of all stripes, especially those on the right who normally advocate “choice” as a matter of course, are prudently doing the same thing.

The question is, should we let them?

After all, if the market’s so great, what’s wrong with the market?

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  1. Obviously the groups Climenhaga has mentioned are all over the map when it comes to choice in education. They are self-serving institutions and organizations that are apparently at their best when they blow and suck at the same time (i.e CTF, PCE, Fraser Institute etc.).

    A more educated electorate has become wise to their disingenuous appeals for “choice” in education. It will take an exceedingly strong government to usher in long overdue reforms in non-secular education curriculums and options. Let’s hope the current one is paying attention.

  2. I had a few thoughts while reading your post, David.

    First, it needs to be pointed out that the existence of Catholic schools is required by the federal legislation that created the Province of Alberta. As such they are likely here for a long time. The 1905 legislation, of course, was written with the idea that by providing a different school board for both Catholics and Protestants, everyone would be able to go to a school of their faith. Obviously that doesn’t happen anymore.

    The students at the charter school I used to teach at were overwhelmingly multicultural, primarily Sikh, with a healthy smattering of Muslims thrown in. Since our school only went to Grade 9 all of them had to look for a new school for high school. For the most part, these non-Catholic students were just as willing to consider a Catholic school as a Public school, and in our ‘compete for students’ province the Catholic high schools welcomed them with open arms. Archbishop MacDonald even printed a different application form for non-Catholic students, they have so many of them. In this context, the words of the ACSTA do seem to ring a bit hollow.

    Since the CTF’s real goal is for students to be taught by teachers outside of the ATA, I am guessing they just don’t care about competition between 2 ATA school boards.

    Finally, does anyone know why, 23 years after Ralph pooled school resources, we are still ticking off the box on our municipal taxes where we want our taxes to go?

    1. Public education has been a provincial matter for a while now, so in 2017 the feds wouldn’t be involved.

      Therefore, if the NDP decided to merge both boards throughout the province, it wouldn’t take as long as you seem to suggest.

      As for anything the CTF has to say, well it’s probably best to ignore them since their end game is quite transparent.

  3. The key phrase in this whole article is “at a moment in Alberta’s history when parallel public school systems are forced to compete for scarce tax dollars”. Separate schools are formed to serve those of ‘minority faiths’ in communities. However, these days all separate schools advertise consistently that ‘we take children of all faiths’. How is that protection of minority faith rights? To me, it smacks of recruitment for churches – with taxpayer money funding it.

  4. “The Alberta Catholic School Trustees Association quickly sent out a news release….”

    Whoever wrote that press release must have had a lip lock on the blarney stone to pass off malarkey like that.

  5. Hey David,

    I just read your response to Val regarding comment moderation in your post a week ago about the Wildrose reaction to healthcare workers.

    I have always been impressed with the quality of the discussion your posts generate. Whether I agree with the ideas people have posted or not, the ideas are presented intelligently, respectfully and usually by someone who has basic writing skills, unlike the mindless chatter that seems to happen in the comments section of most media outlets. As a result I rather naively assumed you had somehow found a magic formula that only attracted intelligent readers to your blog. Thus my first thought about your response to Val was disappointment to learn that my impression was only created by your editing out the riff-raff.

    My second, and enduring thought, is one of gratitude for all the work you do. Thank you very much.

    Now I have to wait and see if my off-topic comment will make the grade!

  6. I despise the idea that my tax dollars are used to fund the promotion of fairytales as fact.

    If we are truly a secular society then we need to rewrite our provincial and federal constitutions to reflect that and remove religion from publicly funded institutions.

    If people don’t agree with that then their churches can start paying taxes.

    Religion is an idea, not a fact. Ideas have no rights, people do.
    The right for one person to believe in religion ends where my right to not believe begins.

    1. Agreed. Let’s keep religion where it belongs in churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples. Or, if you are so inclined, everywhere except government and government funded institutions such as hospitals and schools.

      Let’s embrace science instead of fairy tales that are meant to subjugate women and divide us into factions.

      Ken makes a good point, but I would go further: A person’s right to believe in religion ends when I am forced to subsidize that belief with my tax dollars. I say worship who and what you want, but don’t make me pay for it.

      I’m happy to pay taxes to education children, and adults as well, but passing off catechism as if it was factual is nonsense. Moreover, it’s a waste of valuable instructional time in pubic schools. Better that they should take gym class – at least we would see some real observable results from those classes.

  7. So the ACTSA thinks, “…Catholic education is not an alternative program offered in a secular school but a worldview, encompassing a Christian perspective, imbued with the Spirit, taught by faith witnesses who are more than teachers but sacraments to God’s grace, and Catholicism is permeated throughout the curriculum…” OK, that’s fine. So what business do Catholic school boards have soliciting non-Catholic parents to send their children to those schools? They should be prohibited from allowing non-Catholics to attend, full stop, or this position is an out & out lie.

  8. Regarding the appropriate response of citizens facing the enormity of the political task of phasing out public funding for the Catholic separate school system, I like this:

    “Our job is not to work within what’s possible, it’s to change what’s possible.” – Jody Chan

    from here: Leap Manifesto ‏@LeapManifesto Feb 10

    “Our job is not to work within what’s possible, it’s to change what’s possible.” – Jody Chan on lessons from #TheLeap at #canroots17

    1. At the same time, some battles are more important than others. There are good historical reasons why the two school boards exist….these reasons do not necessarily imply that any other boards need to be created for adherents to other faiths, any more than Cantonese or Urdu need to become official languages.

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