After last year’s abolition of constitutionally-guaranteed religious education rights, Québec’s new language-based school boards are now in place. Elections for commissioners were held last June, and the results were everything traditionalists feared.
Previously, school boards were set up along confessional lines: Catholic and Protestant, the latter usually tending to be more secular, although in fact secularism was a problem in both systems. Roughly speaking, the Catholic boards were made up of mostly French schools, and the Protestant boards were mostly English.
Very broadly speaking, the effect of the new arrangement has been to send English Catholics to the Protestant boards, to create English boards, and to send French Protestants and others to the Catholic boards, to create French boards. The Catholic school boards, at least in Montréal, were deeply politicized and divided between traditionalists and secularists, with the former maintaining a very slight edge. However, the loss of English Catholics and the influx of non-Catholics ensured a secularist sweep on the French side.
On the English side, Catholics seem to be the poor relations, and the Protestant school board’s old guard held court, again virtually sweeping those candidates who supported confessional guarantees.
Children in all schools are supposed to be able to receive Catholic, Protestant, or “morals” education, but already schools are questioning where the money for these programs will come from. It is likely that this will lead to battles over religion versus textbooks or computers.
Under the new regime, schools may choose to maintain their confessional character, but this too is destined to disappear, especially in the English sector, where children often travel farther in order to attend Catholic schools. Such an arrangement is increasingly seen as a choice, not a right, so one can expect the cost of busing children will lead boards to send children to the nearest school, regardless of its confessional status.
Under the new system, each school will have a governing board, made up of an equal number of parents and school staff. The governing boards will determine a school’s confessional status, and otherwise chart the direction for their schools.
Parents are on notice that this will be their only vehicle to advance their priorities. This presents an opportunity, but also concerns, as there is already talk that this process will become politicized by people with an agenda. Elections for the governing boards should be held over the next month or so, and each school will begin to define its place in this new era of education in Québec.
It is a time of great uncertainty, and most likely it will take a year or more before the results of the new school board structure will begin to be felt. For parents, students, and educators, it will be a challenging time.