Newfoundland debates divided schools

PSYCHOLOGY professor William McKim recalls a personal story about this province's unique educational system, one in which all the schools are owned and administered by religious denominations. His school, run by the United Church of Canada, usually played ice hockey against the local Roman Catholic school. ``They were the enemy,'' he says. ``We were not just playing against another team. We were playing against the Pope.''

Since then religious antagonisms on this island of 580,000 have diminished greatly.

``Twenty or 25 years ago, nobody would have dreamed that Catholics and Protestants would come together for a garden party or anything else,'' remembers Myrle Vokey, executive director of the Newfoundland and Labrador School Trustees Association. ``There has been a tremendous change.''

Despite this religious tolerance, the province has not one public school system, but four publicly funded denominational school systems. The merits of this divided system are still being debated.

Earlier this month, the provincial government named members of a task force to look into school funding. Also, the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Association has been advertising for parents who would register their children in a public, nondenominational school system. If the government agrees, this would be a fifth school system.

With the anticipated growth in the offshore oil industry here, many Newfoundlanders feel the province will need a higher level of education. The province has the highest illiteracy rate in Canada - about 31 percent of those over age 15. Critics say the denominational system makes progress against this problem more difficult.

At present, there are one Pentecostal school board, one Seventh-day Adventist board, 12 Catholic boards, and 19 Integrated, or Protestant, boards. The latter are the result of a 1969 agreement of the Anglicans (Episcopalians), the United Church (a union of various Protestant churches), and the Salvation Army to integrate their separate systems. They agreed also to represent the Moravians in Labrador and the Presbyterians.

There is no nondenominational public school system. Adherents of different Christian denominations, atheists, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and others tend to send their children to the Integrated schools. Though they do not prevent such attendance, some trustees of the Integrated schools are not too happy about being the ``dumping ground'' for the children from families with minority religions.

Unlike the United States, Canada has no constitutional clause guaranteeing separation of church and state. In fact, the tradition of church involvement in Canadian education is deep-rooted. The educational provisions of the British North America Act of 1867 (Canada's original constitution) and subsequent amendments basically froze into place the educational systems of the provinces as they existed before union. Moreover, the 10 provinces have autonomy in educational matters. This has resulted in a wide variance in how education and denominational issues are managed.

Today five provinces have publicly supported religious schools: Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, and Newfoundland. These provinces contain more than three-quarters of the population of the country. Even in the other provinces, governments provide some financial support to private religious schools.

Newfoundland's fully denominational school system was protected in the Terms of Union when the province joined the Canadian Confederation in 1949. It provides that all such schools receive funding on a nondiscriminatory basis.

The denominational system grew out of a decades-long struggle in the 1800s between the Irish Catholics and British Anglicans (and later Methodists) who settled in hundreds of small fishing villages along the Newfoundland coast. When first formed, the divided system may have reduced the sometimes violent religious competition.

Critics, however, see many faults. It means that school boards can require teachers to belong to their denomination, or fire them if they don't live up to their religion's standards. For instance, a Newfoundland court of appeal recently upheld the decision of a Catholic school board to fire a teacher who married a woman who belonged to the Salvation Army and had converted from Catholicism to the Salvation Army. If the parents object in writing, students can be excused from participation in religious courses. But for the most part they sit through the classes anyway. Religious education takes about 8 percent of school time - one year in 12 years. The nondenominational public has little say in the government of their children's schools.

Romulo Magsino, a professor of education at the University of Manitoba, argues that change is necessary to ensure the rights of individuals and groups. He mentions public funding of private schools or conversion of Integrated schools into secular schools.

A possibly greater pressure for some form of unification or cooperation is economics. Mr. McKim accepts as ``not unreasonable'' an estimate of the Newfoundland Teachers Association that division results in 20 percent inefficiency in the system. He notes the extra administrative, transportation, and building costs. Though Newfoundlanders pay more per pupil for schooling than other Canadians, they are getting high dropout rates, poor performance on standardized achievement tests, deplorable physical conditions in many schools, and mounting debt, he says.

To remedy this, he advocates operation of joint schools with the denominational aspect of education continued within these schools. A limited number of joint schools have already been built, with both Catholics and Protestants sharing such facilities as gymnasiums, libraries, and science laboratories. This trend is expected to continue slowly.

A majority of Newfoundlanders disapprove of the system. But with 45 percent of them still preferring to retain denominational schools, most politicians are expected to avoid such a hot political potato. Only the New Democratic Party has called for a review of the system.

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