Alberta's public and Catholic school boards should merge, argues former education minister

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A former Alberta education minister says the time has come to unite the separate and public school boards across Alberta.

Dave King, who oversaw the province's education system as a PC from 1979-1986, has launched a website to get the conversation moving. 

"It's a conversation that has ebbed and flowed over the years in Alberta, but clearly in there have been a number political and other issues in the last couple of years that make it appropriate to have the conversation," he said. 

King, speaking to the Calgary Eyeopener, says he believes education should be in a system "that is a model of a civil democratic society, rather than a faith community."

He says recent debates regarding gay-straight alliances and new guidelines around transgender rights in schools have exposed fault lines among Alberta's various boards. The debate around providing an HPV vaccine to students several years ago also split the public and Catholic boards in Calgary.

Potentially millions in savings

At this point, King's not proposing any concrete solutions, saying he just wants to start the conversation about changing a system established 250 years ago after the British and the French clashed on the Plains of Abraham. 

"Kids should be educated in systems that are inclusive, not exclusive," he said. 

In addition to civic concerns, King also says a merger could result in cost savings. 

"Numbers from Alberta Education indicate that last year the separate school boards in Alberta spent just over $60 million on central office administration," he said. "Let's put some or most of that money into the classroom."

King said in areas where there are two schools operated by two boards that are underutilized, one of those buildings could be converted to other public uses. 

Quebec and Newfoundland

Eliminating separate boards like Calgary's Catholic system isn't a new idea. Quebec and Newfoundland eliminated their separate boards starting in the late '90s.

"Clearly when you unify systems, in the moment of doing it, there are going to operational issues, but in Newfoundland and Quebec the evidence is that it's been a successful move, a very successful move," he said. 

King said the issue of choice is largely irrelevant, with numerous alternate programs, including Jewish and Christian schools, operating under the public system. There's also the option of creating private schools. 

More faith in schools

So why didn't King make the change when he was in charge of the province's education system? In short, he said, things have changed. 

"I think first of all because I didn't appreciate all of what was happening at that time. Secondly, at that time, separate schools were less close to the church than they are now and there was a general agreement that they were simply providing what I would call this civil democratic education, it was less oriented towards faith formation," said King. 

"Thirdly, 40 years ago there wasn't much separate school education in sparsely settled areas of rural Alberta." 

That last part is important, he argues, because the costs involved in overlapping educational offerings in rural Alberta are significant. 

Public should lead the politicians

King isn't convinced current education minister David Eggen will have an appetite for merging school boards, but that's not who he's trying to influence at this point with his website and campaign.

"There are some questions where I believe the public should lead the politicians," said King.

"What I'm interested in at this point is to encourage the conversation among Albertans and I believe when the conversation has reached its fullness, the politicians will follow the lead of the electorate." 

Eggen, in a written statement, said he supports the separate system. 

"We support Catholic education and we know that our students receive a quality education in Catholic schools," he wrote. "We know that Albertans support choice in education and so does our government."

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With files from the Calgary Eyeopener