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Bill 40 under fire as public hearings into Quebec’s education reform begin

WATCH: Public hearings on the Quebec government's controversial plan to do away with school boards began on Monday. Bill 40 calls for service centres to replace the current school boards. As Tim Sargeant reports, the Quebec English School Board Association calls the reform undemocratic and unnecessary.

Public hearings into the Coalition Avenir Québec’s education reform bill kicked off Monday at the National Assembly in Quebec City.

Bill 40, which seeks to change the province’s school boards into service centres, was tabled by Education Minister Jean-François Roberge in early October.

Roberge began the hearings by thanking all those who worked behind the scenes to make the bill a reality and expressed hope discussions would lead to improvements of the proposed legislation.

All three opposition parties voiced their skepticism in terms of the minister’s willingness to listen and act upon the recommendations being presented during the hearings.

Liberal MNA Marwah Rizqy criticized Roberge for a tight agenda, expressing concern the government was trying to rush the bill through.

She also criticized the bill’s focus.

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“When I look at your proposed legislation, I don’t see anywhere a mention of educational success,” she said. “I hope you realize that playing around with the structures doesn’t result in additional services to students.”

The first group to present was the Fédération des commission scolaires du Québec (FCSQ), which represents the majority of French-language school boards in the province.

READ MORE: Francophones shouldn’t lose their right to vote in school board elections, argue English-language advocates

President Alain Fortier got straight to the point, calling the proposed legislation discriminatory towards francophones.

Under the proposed legislation, English-language school boards would still retain the right to hold democratic elections, while general elections would be eliminated for the French system.

The education minister proposed instead that the board of directors for new service centres be elected by the parent, professional and student representatives on the schools’ governing boards.

“The minister’s choice discriminates against francophones in virtue of both the Quebec Charter and the Canadian Charter,” Fortier said.

He also blasted the government over its failure to consult with any of the boards before tabling Bill 40, adding a structural reorganization does nothing to address real and pressing issues facing public institutions, such as labour shortages and the lack of resources for students with special needs.

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READ MORE: Quebec plans to hold hearings on proposed school board reforms in November

Next to present was the Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA), which agreed with many of the points raised by the FCSQ, including a failure to address the issue of student success.

“The burden is on the government of Quebec to demonstrate through evidence-based public policy analysis to demonstrated how Bill 40 will contribute to student success,” said QESBA vice-president Noel Burke.

“In our estimation it has failed to do so.”

QESBA also testified that Section 23 in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees that English school boards in Quebec be controlled and managed by the Anglophone community. But its members fear Bill 40 threatens that guarantee.

“Bill 40 confers on the minister of education the power to intervene and exercise an important degree of control on the service centres,” said Russell Copeman, QESBA’s executive director.

He explained that as a result, future service centres risk losing their autonomy and independence.

READ MORE: Quebec teachers ‘insulted’ over lack of consultation on plan to abolish school boards

While QESBA aknowledged the government had made an effort in preserving Anglo rights by maintaining school board elections, Copeman argued the new system of governance and elections was complicated and difficult to implement.

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On Sunday, the Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ) — a union representing 125,000 members working in education — also criticized the reform.

The CSQ says it fears the new system will breed inequality of services between schools and as such will destabilize the public education system in Quebec.

Under the plan, parents could enrol students in the school of their choice, which, according to the union, could lead to competition between schools.

CSQ president Sonia Ethier took aim at Roberge, accusing him of tabling the reform without first consulting teachers.

“It’s a lack of respect,” she said.

The union also contends that although the bill was originally intended to review school structures, it undermines teachers.

One example is forcing teachers to undergo mandatory training, regardless of circumstances.

The union presented its 14 recommendations to the parliamentary committee on Monday, adding to the nine recommendations put forward by the Fédération des syndicats de l’enseignement (FSE), which is affilated to the CSQ.

Roberge responded to the criticism in a brief presser Monday afternoon, defending the decision to do away with school boards.

“If the kids have success, it’s because of the parents, because of the principals, because of the teachers and because of the support staff,” he said. “Not because of the commissioners.”

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The hearings are expected to continue until mid-November.

— With files from The Canadian Press