Edmonton Public School Board chair seeks provincial approval to offer Catholic programs

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WATCH ABOVE: The chair of Edmonton Public Schools is asking if the Edmonton Catholic School District should have a monopoly on offering Catholic programming to students. Tom Vernon reports – Feb 7, 2017

The chair of the Edmonton Public School Board believes Catholic faith programs should be offered in public schools and plans to seek approval from the province to do exactly that.

In a blog post written Monday night, Michael Janz said he will ask administration next week to find out if the education minister will allow the public school system to create a Catholic faith alternative program.

“I informally asked the question when I was first elected trustee in 2010, and was told that previous governments and ministers would not permit public school boards to create Catholic programs, but puzzlingly they have allowed Catholic districts to offer duplicate programs that are also offered by public and Francophone school boards,” Janz wrote.

“At this time, when we’re in a provincial education curriculum review, when people are thinking about the future of our schools and we’re all putting together our capital plans for the upcoming year, I think it’s an interesting time to ask, ‘well, let’s have a conversation about choices we can offer within the public system.'”

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Janz said he is not calling for the abolition or defunding of Catholic school boards across Alberta, but sees this as a way to potentially expand the faith programs offered by Edmonton Public Schools. The public system already offers religious options, including Christian schools and programs. Talmud Torah School offers Judaic and secular education and Grace Martin School offers the Sakinah Circle program.

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Janz said he is often asked by his constituents why the public system does not already offer a Catholic faith program.

“This is no different than EPSB operating French Immersion programs which do not challenge the existence of the constitutionally protected Francophone school boards,” Janz said.

“The Edmonton Public School Board supports programs of choice where there is a demand and if anything this would mean more faith and more choice, not less.”

Janz said this could also alleviate the enrolment pressures at some schools. With students moving back to the public system, Janz believes it could lead to an influx of students in mature communities where schools see lower enrolment. He said it could also mean “huge operational and capital savings to the provincial government.”

“There would be significant cost savings to the Alberta government if public schools could offer a public and Catholic program under one physical and metaphorical roof. If we were able to offer another program, we would be able to save on capital costs by attracting more students whose only choice might be the ECSD system.”

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Education Minister David Eggen said he believes Janz was “musing” in his blog, adding the idea was “news to me.”

“I wasn’t aware of any plan like this from the school board,” Eggen said at the Alberta Legislature Tuesday.

“We have a Catholic School Board that’s doing a fine job of educating students right across the province so it seems a bit redundant.”

Eggen said his ministry is looking into whether the board would need provincial approval to move ahead with the idea.

“We were checking to see if it was even under the ministry’s purview. Didn’t even see a clear answer on that,” he said. “Edmonton public has other special programming and even religious programming and I don’t think they ever asked permission from the minister to do that.”

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The Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association, which represents 24 Alberta divisions with Catholic schools, wanted to make it clear that Catholic schools in Alberta are not “just another school system or substitute offering.”

“Catholicism and Catholic education is not an alternative program offered in a secular school but a world view, encompassing a Christian perspective, imbued with the spirit, taught by faith witnesses who are more than teachers but sacraments to God’s grace,” the ACSTA wrote in a media release.

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“Catholicism is permeated throughout the curriculum, as well as school life in general, be it through sports or extracurricular activities… We believe Catholic religion courses belong in fully permeated Catholic schools.”

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Janz said the board first wants to ensure the province would allow such a program in the public system before seeking input from parents to see if there is a demand for the program.

The topic will be brought up for discussion at the Feb. 14 board meeting. No new program can be created within the school system until the board votes on it.

Edmonton Public Schools currently has just shy of 96,000 kids enrolled, while the Edmonton Catholic School District has just over 41,000 students.

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