Supporters of separate school education argue that it is inclusive, and an exemplar of a civil democratic community. That is often incidentally the case. There may well be Jewish or Hindu children attending separate schools. Every good education provides students with some of the preparation necessary for successful life in a civil democratic community. Separate schools generally provide a good education.
The fact remains that there are very deliberate, conscious, and strict limits on inclusion and civil democracy in a separate school.
The attendance of (for example) a Jewish or Hindu child at a separate school is a matter of the school’s discretion, not the child’s right. A separate school can decide to discontinue the education of any child who is not of the minority faith. From time to time and from place to place, separate schools make such decisions. They are not inclusive by design: they are first of all exclusive, and only inclusive to the extent that they choose to be inclusive.
In addition, there is the reality that, although separate schools may be inclusive in the classroom, they are generally not inclusive on the school council, and they are certainly not inclusive in their board room. The Jewish or Hindu child may be included in the classroom (at the discretion of the school): the child’s Jewish or Hindu parents will never be allowed to vote for the trustees guiding their child’s education. They will certainly not be able to stand for election themselves, even if they believe in, and support, separate school education.
They ACSTA, representing all but one of the separate school jurisdictions in Alberta, has a clear position that people not of the minority faith cannot be allowed to vote in separate school trustee elections, even if they are Christian of another denomination.
Even within the Christian faith, Protestants who send their child to a Catholic separate school cannot vote for separate school trustees, or stand for election as a separate school trustee, even if they believe in, and support, separate school education.
Finally, there is a difference between inclusion for the purpose of celebrating diversity and inclusion for the purpose of making newcomers “like us”. Separate school education exists in order to ensure that students and parents participate according to the terms of the minority faith community. The goal of separate school education is not to celebrate differences: it is to celebrate the primacy of one set of differences.
This shows up in the way that some issues are dealt with in separate schools. Consider the recent example from Thunder Bay. http://www.tbnewswatch.com/news/Default.aspx?cid=136109
The fact is, separate schools exist to be a model of a denominational faith community. They don’t exist to be a model of a civil democratic community. When there is tension between the democratic concept of free speech and democratic decision-making, the separate school can – and does – limit free speech in favour of Church teachings and it limits democratic decision-making in favour of the expressed position of Church leaders.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with a faith community wanting to model itself to its children. There is nothing wrong with such a faith community welcoming others, in the hope that others will absorb the teachings and join the denomination. There is nothing wrong with a faith community preferring to welcome others on its own terms, rather than accepting and celebrating people as they are. As Kevin Feehan, legal counsel for the Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association, has written: “So let Catholic education be “separate”, different, radical and based upon a concept of education fundamentally opposed to that of the public school system.” (Catholic Dimension, Fall, 2008.)
The question is simply this, should the resources of the State be put in the service of this aspiration for one or two faith groups and not for others?
Separate school education is often inclusive, but it is exclusive at its core. It is often supportive of civil rights and the civil democratic community, but modeling this support is limited by the teachings of a denomination. Some things cannot be talked about. Some positions are not allowed to have advocates. Some conversations can come to only one conclusion.
We can do better.