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Critics decry Quebec plan on religious schools

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Proposal to allow weekend classes seen as a move to accommodate the orthodox Jewish community

A proposed change to Quebec’s school calendar has sparked a fiery debate, with critics charging that it will open the door to an increase in private, subsidized, religious schools.

The change would allow schools to hold regular classes on weekends. Minister of Education Michelle Courchesne said that, to reduce the province’s alarming high-school dropout rate, public schools need more “flexibility” in addressing the special needs of students.

However, according to documents obtained by the Montreal daily Le Devoir, the school calendar was being changed so that “illegal” orthodox Jewish schools could operate within the law by allowing them to teach compulsory subjects on Sundays.

Because they have refused so far to conform to the required provincial curriculum, the six schools were not licensed by the Ministry of Education. Rather than shut them down and trigger a political backlash from the Jewish community, the government proposed instead to change the law.

According to the documents, the government struck a deal with the six ultrareligious schools last September. In a letter to the minister, the Jewish schools agreed to teach compulsory subjects on Sundays to complete the mandatory 25 hours a week that the law states must be dedicated to the provincial curriculum.

“As discussed, schools will offer on Sundays the compulsory courses of the Quebec curriculum,” the deal stated. The proposal to lift the ban on teaching compulsory subjects on weekends was recently tabled without public debate. The government has 45 days to adopt the regulation, change it or drop the proposal altogether.

After several denials, the Minister of Education acknowledged the changes were initiated to accommodate Jewish orthodox religious schools. Ms. Courchesne denied yesterday playing favourites and hiding facts to avoid a potentially damaging debate.

“We are being very strict with the Jewish community. They have accepted to conform to the education requirements. There are hundreds of children that will benefit. Nobody can blame us for doing that,” she said. “Our only objective is to see all schoolchildren succeed.”

Critics accused the government of hiding the real motives behind the change. They argued the government has bent the rules to help one group by turning its back on the secular values that have led to the separation of religion and schools in the province. The proposed changes would also allow fundamentalist religious groups across the province to open more subsidized private schools, they added.

Private schools in Quebec that follow the standard curriculum can receive 60 per cent of their funding from the government and still teach religion and strict religious values.

The head of the province’s largest teachers union, Réjean Parent, said the government should have been transparent and allowed for a full public debate on accommodating religious groups in schools, as well as a larger debate on the more critical issue of public funding of private schools.

“The government is creating a major upheaval with the school calendar in order to accommodate one religious group. It’s trying to hide it by saying it was being done to fight the dropout rate,” he said. “It’s a smokescreen to adopt changes in order to avoid a full public debate.”

Parti Québécois education critic Pierre Curzi said the proposal constituted a major change that will eventually lead to an increase in denominational schools in the province.

“We have no idea if the minister has properly evaluated the consequences of these changes,” Mr. Curzi said. “This decision goes totally against the secular spirit of our education system.”


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