Separate School | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Separate School

In both the US and Canada parents are free to choose to send their children to the state-run public SCHOOL SYSTEM or to a variety of private fee-paying schools.

Separate School

In both the US and Canada parents are free to choose to send their children to the state-run public SCHOOL SYSTEM or to a variety of private fee-paying schools. In Canada, several provinces, through systems of public separate schools or public support of PRIVATE SCHOOLS, allow families greater choice, usually on the basis of denominationalism. In the US, however, a strict interpretation of the doctrine of the separation of church and state restricts choice somewhat. For parents there, education ceases to be free if they decline to exercise their prior right to send their children to the public schools. In contrast to US constitutionalism, under which state aid is denied to separate schools, Canadians have used constitutional provisions to guarantee state aid to such schools.

Early History

The basic framework for Canada's use of public monies for separate and denominational schools and, more generally, for the relationship between the state and schooling was established in the 19th century. Fundamental to the creation of a system of free and universal education was the notion, then common, that education and religion were inseparable and that the state had a responsibility to foster, wherever possible, a harmonious relationship between them. Religion in education was important, even essential, to both Protestants and Catholics.

Many residents of the British North American colonies became convinced that it was essential to organize truly public common schools for all children to attend. This conviction was spurred by the fear of both denominational factionalism and US republican influence, but nondenominational public schools were also seen as an effective nation-building instrument. In Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, for example, separate denominational schools were regarded as socially divisive. In contrast, in Upper and Lower Canada the trend was to accept dissentient and separate schools as a way to maintain some publicly controlled uniformity while also recognizing the validity of certain minority rights.

This pattern was duplicated elsewhere later, eg, in Saskatchewan and Alberta, with the result that the Canadian practice generally became one of subsidizing the education of some religious minorities in confessional, separate and dissentient schools. The accommodation of these minorities was made for educational, not religious reasons, reflecting a consensus that the parent is an important agent of education and that schools should be responsive to parental demands in matters relating to moral and religious education.

The situation in early and mid-19th-century Canada was strikingly different from that in the US, primarily because of the great political power of those associated with the dominant Church of England in the early days of UPPER CANADA and because of the existence of a French Catholic majority in LOWER CANADA. These 2 conditions and the tensions they engendered, with non-Anglican Protestants and Catholics fighting for their legitimate rights in Upper Canada and Anglo-Protestants seeking security against French Catholic domination in Lower Canada, impelled the state to avoid establishing a nondenominational common school system, and moved it instead to assume legal protection and support for denominationally based schooling. These arrangements were enshrined in the CONSTITUTION ACT of 1867, and despite a growing secularization and increased homogenization among Protestant denominations in the 20th century, the responsibility of the state to support denominational schools in some form has remained intact in most provinces. The concept that church and state are partners, not hostile and incompatible forces that must be kept at a distance, has made it possible for educational authorities in Canada to subsidize Jewish schools in Québec and Hutterite schools on the Prairies, to condone Amish schools in Ontario, and to permit the Salvation Army to develop its own public schools in Newfoundland.

Confederation and After

By 1867 each of the 3 colonies of British North America that formed the Dominion of Canada had its own system of common schools. After Confederation, by the provisions of s93 of the Constitution Act of 1867, each province maintained exclusive jurisdiction over its own educational structure. The effect of subsection 1 of s93 was to give all legally established existing denominational schools at the time of Confederation perpetual rights to public funds. What was left unsaid, however, was that denominational schools established by custom but not by law were not guaranteed the same right to existence.

In the wake of the Constitution Act of 1867, the provinces were free to forge their own education statutes, subject to the guarantees for denominational schools already legally established. Five different administrative arrangements emerged. In Québec a dual confessional public school system developed, composed of 2 separate and independent streams, Catholic and Protestant, representing the 2 confessions of Western Christianity. In each school district, the confessional schools of the minority were known as dissentient schools, but like the majority's public common schools, they controlled their own curriculum, teacher training and inspection through their confessional section of the Council of Public Instruction (now Ministry of Education). After the establishment of a provincial ministry of education in 1964, however, confessional autonomy was considerably reduced to the point where the 2 branches now essentially share a common curriculum.

Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta established a separate-school system, normally Protestant or Catholic segregated confessional systems, along with the common nonsectarian public schools. Both the separate schools and the nonsectarian public schools were and are administered by either a department or ministry of education with control over curriculum, teacher training and certification, special programs and inspection.

Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI and Manitoba adopted informal arrangements for funding denominational schools. (Between 1871 and 1890 Manitoba had the dual confessional system, ie, Catholic and Protestant, similar to that of Québec. From then until the late 1960s, it granted no aid to any religious group.) Officially, in these provinces, there are single nonsectarian public school systems. In practice, however, political compromises and administrative leeway over the years allowed Catholic schools to receive state funds with varying degrees of state supervision attached. Thus a separate-school system has virtually come into being in all but name.

Newfoundland and BC, until quite recently, have represented the poles of Canadian funding patterns. Before the late 1960s, Newfoundland provided support exclusively for denominational schools; thus, a truly denominational public school system was in operation. Then, in March 1969 the Anglican Church, United Church and Salvation Army signed a Document of Integration, which the Presbyterian Church later accepted. Each church thereby relinquished its right to operate its own schools but retained an executive secretary to advise the provincial department of education on denominational questions. The other denominations - Roman Catholic, Pentecostal Assemblies and Seventh Day Adventist - also appointed executive secretaries to the Denominational Education Commission operating outside the department but advisory to it. Until 1977, BC alone among the provinces funded no religiously based schools. The first school legislation enacted by the new province's legislature in 1872 established free nonsectarian public schools, thereby invoking the doctrine of the separation of church and state. The public system remains intact but, with the passage of Bill 33 in 1977, BC now provides funding to private denominational and nondenominational schools.

The organizational structure, assumptions and practices that emerged a century ago have been contested, often bitterly, and occasionally modified, but on the whole there was little substantive administrative change between the end of the century and the 1960s. Over the years Canadian courts have established that denominational rights with respect to schooling are based on religion, not language, and that the religion of the parent is the decisive factor. However, parents do not always have a free choice as to which school, public or separate, their children may attend, nor for which they shall be taxed. In Ontario, for example, a Catholic parent may elect the school system to which his or her taxes go; the children will then attend the system to which such taxes are paid. Although a Catholic may choose to be a public-school supporter, however, a non-Catholic may not elect to support a Catholic separate school.

In Saskatchewan, if a separate school exists in a district the taxpayer has no choice but to support the school operated by members of his or her denomination. In Alberta, once a Roman Catholic separate-school district is established, all Catholic residents are separate-school supporters and all non-Catholic residents are public-school supporters. In Edmonton, Calgary and Saskatoon the school boards have arranged that non-Catholic children may attend Catholic separate schools and Catholic children may attend public schools at no cost. But it is not clear whether non-Catholics can be separate-school supporters even if they declare themselves Catholic for tax purposes. In Alberta and Saskatchewan there was equal provision of corporation taxes, larger units and secondary schools to both streams. In Ontario, however, not only were non-Catholic parents denied the right to choose Catholic schooling for their children, but equal public support for both systems soon disappeared and funding for separate schools was not extended beyond grade 10 until September 1985. At that time public funding was extended to separate schools and grade 11, then grades 12 and 13 one year at a time.

Despite these striking differences among the provinces, certain factors remain common: the property tax remains a basic source of all school revenue in most provinces; public schools, whether separate or common, are usually tuition-free; a centralized administrative structure (though varying in power) is in place in each province and normally exercises a similar supervisory role over both public and separate schools; until the 1960s all provinces insisted upon religious instruction in all public schools and religious exercises (the Lord's Prayer, Bible reading from selected passages) to open the day; and funding arrangements are quite similar in a number of provinces.

Recent History

In the past 30 years, a number of significant changes have occurred and political controversy over separate school funding has intensified. The changes result from several developments. The growing importance of education as a means of access to the labour market, manifest in the conversion of the secondary school into a mass institution and the rapid expansion of post-secondary schooling, increased the financial costs of providing separate schools and raised questions about the adequacy of the secular instruction available within them. In both cases, separate-school advocates had a larger stake in gaining more public funds. The consolidation of small school districts into larger units often meant that ethnically or denominationally homogeneous schools were converted into more heterogeneous institutions, complicating or eliminating the monolithic basis of the original schools.

This was particularly true in Atlantic Canada. The centralization of funding at the provincial level replaced the previous dominance of locally based financing and usually coincided with larger funding. Simultaneously, however, centralization tended to increase state supervisory powers and led to a diminution of autonomy among schools accepting increased levels of provincial funds. The expansion of provincial involvement in schools and the growing importance of schooling itself affected separate-school funding and church-state relations in every province.

Atlantic Canada presents a typical picture of how efforts to modernize the public schools reduced both the informal and formal authority and autonomy previously held by the Catholic denominational schools. In Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and PEI, informal agreements continue to link church and state in education, allowing, for example, teachers in public schools in Catholic areas to wear religious dress. But the effort by provincial governments to improve educational services through more efficient and economic organizational structures, by centralizing and consolidating funding so as to distribute public money more equitably and by increasing supervisory control over all schools, seriously challenged the denominational basis of schooling. Likewise, denominationalism is now confined to an advisory rather than policymaking role in Newfoundland.

The politics of separate-school funding in Ontario are in many ways unique. Thanks to recent large-scale immigration from Catholic Europe (from countries such as Italy and Portugal), 37% of Ontario's population is Catholic and about 34% of elementary students are in separate schools. Of the 160 elementary school boards, 57 were Catholic and only one was Protestant. From September 1987 all separate schools have been funded on the same basis as public schools. For Francophones in some regions of the province, there was (until September 1985) another way to receive public funds for Catholic students in grades 11 to 13: they attended public French secondary schools. Significantly, this required a shift in emphasis from religion to ethnicity and language. The number of school boards dropped to 87 in the late 1990s.

The extraordinary growth in the past 3 decades of enrolments in separate and nonpublic denominational schools and the increased political power of denominational groups attest to the importance parents attach to schooling as a means of preserving religio-cultural values and improving economic position. Other groupings of parents with language, ethnocultural or educational interests who are not currently served in public or grant-aided private schools are likely to emerge and demand support in a version of Canadian educational pluralism unmatched since the prepublic-school era of the mid-19th century. By the mid-1990s, denominationalism had gained an educational prominence few would have predicted 30 years ago.