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How free will Canada’s education be?

Written on June 18th, 2013

The Supreme Court of Canada announced June 13 it will hear a Catholic high school’s appeal to be exempted from teaching Quebec’s ethics and religious culture program.

Loyola High School wants to be allowed to teach its own religion program from the Catholic perspective.

The provincial education minister turned down the school’s request for exemption and Court of Appeal in Quebec sided with the minister on that decision as of last December.

Canada is facing a watershed moment in terms of the educational freedom it allows, says executive vice-president of Canadian think-tank Cardus, Ray Pennings.

In addition to the above case, there have been a number of recent controversial legislation and legal process issues related to education across the country — ranging from the anti-bullying Bill 18 in Manitoba to the credibility challenges faith-based Trinity Western University has faced.

All beg a deep social question, Pennings says, which is, “Are we going to provide a place for choices and pluralism to be present in education?

“Or are we going to have a monopolistic education system in which the funding choices, the curriculum is entirely determined by the state, in which it becomes impossible to make any choices?”

The Loyola case and what the Supreme Court decides will have consequences well beyond Quebec, Pennings says.

As VP of an organization with a special interest in education research, particularly that of non-government funded and religious education, Pennings says it makes sense that the state is interested in education as it wants to ensure tomorrow’s citizens are literate, responsible and economically productive.

The question is how that outcome is realized.

“The evidence shows that that is being accomplished in non-government schools at an equal or greater degree cumulatively than it is in government schools,” he says, referring to a Cardus education study last year which surveyed a representative sample of 23-39 year-old graduates of religious, non-government-funded Ontario schools and those of public, government-funded schools.

Taking into account the Ontario Public Education Act and what it purports to seek in outcomes with graduates — for instance, that they are engaged citizens and contribute civically — the study found that graduates of non-government schools participated at an equal or greater degree in the various aspects of society as compared to graduates of public, government-funded schools.

Pennings’ big concern with the educational freedom debate is that it gets stuck in ideological arguments, as opposed to looking at where the evidence – such as the above – leads.

Related to this debate, and particularly the Loyola case, is what input parents should have in the education of their children, whether that’s in choosing between school systems or having input on the curriculum within a school system.

“The question is, whose kids are they?” Pennings says. “We assume that parents are responsible for the economic raising of their children and taking care of them; we assume parental responsibility in terms of health decisions of children.

“It seems nonsensical to suggest that parents should have no role whatsoever in the educational choices and upbringing of their children, particularly when the evidence shows that parents who are making these choices are producing better results than those who are simply following the state’s choices.”

Loyola High School principal Paul Donovan told the Montreal Gazette this Supreme Court appeal is the last resort for the school and he’s hopeful it will end in the school’s favour. While Loyola is the only Quebec school fighting the provincial ethics and religion program, Donovan says the school does have lots of support.

Donovan told the Gazette he believes there is a lot riding on this decision as it reflects how Quebec will cope with an increasingly multicultural society. Referring to the recent controversy around the use of turbans in children’s soccer leagues, he said, it’s clear Quebec needs to set the tone for a tolerant, pluralistic society.

“My feeling is this course won’t promote tolerance, but will do just the opposite — and that’s a problem,” he said.

The case is now before the court.