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Editorial on Education: Individual choice gives Quebec a migraine

November, 2010

In these rapidly changing times, education is the key to growth and prosperity. But two issues, one solved at least for now, the other bubbling to the surface, merit our evaluation.

The first concerns the Quebec government’s use of closure to ram through Bill 115, its response to the Supreme Court of Canada overturning part of Quebec’s language law. It replaced a loophole that had been tolerated for years, including under the Parti Québécois, where children could gain access to publicly financed English-language schooling after attending an unsubsidized private English school for a year or more.

In 2002, the PQ introduced Bill 104, which closed that loophole. It was challenged to the Supreme Court and ruled unconstitutional in October 2009. The court gave Quebec a year to fix it.

Under the law passed this month, days before that one-year deadline, children who attend unsubsidized English private schools for at least three years can accumulate points toward getting access. A committee of four civil servants would then evaluate each case to determine whether studies in that language are consistent with a “legitimate educational pathway.” The solution is far from perfect, gives leeway to civil servants and is certain to face challenges as soon as the first child is rejected. The PQ is quite right in saying this allows the wealthy to fork over up to $15,000 a year to “buy” the right to subsidized schooling in English.

It is a way around the law for those parents who would have to send their children to French- language schools and find that option unacceptable. The issue must be viewed in the context of Bill 101, the language law passed in 1977, which channelled immigrants into the French-language educational stream.

Freedom of choice, while sounding fair on paper, was and still is seen as the kiss of death to a French-speaking society. With its fertility rate lower than the replacement level, Quebec is increasingly dependent on immigration. Forcing immigrants into French schools has tempered one of the main fears that was fuelling separatist sentiment. It must be pointed out that thousands of English-speaking families who had the right to send their kids to English schools chose French schools as the best way for their children to become bilingual enough to compete with graduates from francophone families. But for Quebec’s nationalists, these numbers don’t compensate for the loophole used by a few thousand to avoid attending French schools.

It’s not a great law, not something to be proud of, but it will have to do until the next round of court battles that will almost certainly arise. At least there will be a calming period so Quebecers can focus their energy on such other pressing problems in education as high dropout rates, the failure of programs to integrate students with learning disabilities, the need to teach better quality French as a first language, and growing gender inequality in higher-education success rates.

A second education issue that is sure to grow into a major challenge is Quebec’s insistence that all private schools devote at least 18 hours a week to core education – including those that receive no government subsidies. This has been ignored by some Hasidic schools and the government is in court to order the closure of the Yeshiva Toras Moshe, run by and for the growing Satmar Hasidic community. It has been operating without a permit because it devotes 35 hours a week to religious studies, but only six to secular subjects like math. None of its six secular teachers are certified. In New York, where 100,000 Satmars live, the state is not interfering with schools that receive no subsidies. Quebec has rejected this hands-off approach.

A similar challenge is arising in Israel, where there is widespread concern about the growing ulra-Orthodox community and its failure to contribute to Israel’s knowledge-based economy.

Does a state that makes school attendance compulsory have the right to insist on the content of core education? Some libertarians would say no. We say it does. Numeracy, literacy, and basic knowledge of history, health and computers are tools every citizen needs to participate in our society. It is up to private schools to find ways of fitting in their religious or other specialized training into the parameters set by the state.

This battle has only just begun.



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