The Collapse of Denominational Education

Whether or not the province should adopt a non-denominational education system became a controversial issue during the 1980s and 1990s. Under the denominational system, Christian Churches had the right to own and operate schools using public money. Critics argued the system was expensive, ineffective, and discriminated against residents who did not belong to one of the recognized denominations. Supporters argued the denominational system helped to cultivate spirituality and morality in a secular world while strengthening community integrity; they also stressed that the churches' right to educate was entrenched in Newfoundland's Terms of Union with Canada.

Growing Concerns: 1980s and 1990s

Demographic and social changes in the late-20th century affected the quality of education in Newfoundland and in Labrador and altered residents' attitudes towards the denominational school system. The number of school-aged residents dropped as the province's birth rate declined during the late-1970s and 1980s. This pushed enrolment down and caused many schools to become partially empty, particularly in rural areas. Growing migration from outport communities into St. John's and other urban centres further contributed to shrinking enrolments and forced many rural schools to close. Those that remained open were often ill-equipped and underfunded. The province distributed money to school boards based on student numbers, so any drop in enrolment also meant a drop in income.

At the same time, some residents and organizations questioned the relevance of a state-funded denominational school system in an increasingly secular and multicultural society. The denominational system had its roots in the 19th century, when Newfoundland society was relatively homogeneous – most residents were Church of England (Anglican), Roman Catholic or Methodist, with smaller numbers belonging to other Christian denominations. By 1980, however, significant numbers belonged to religions other than Christianity, or professed no religion at all.

In 1984, the Newfoundland-Labrador Human Rights Association (NLHRA) sent a brief to the Minister of Justice criticizing the school system, stating that: “The greatest single threat to equality of religion and freedom of worship [in the province] is the restrictive nature of the denominational educational system. It is recommended that a second alternative be available for students who are not of faiths which benefit from a special constitutional privilege, or that denominational schools be prohibited from discriminating on the basis of religion.”

Calls for change came from other sectors as well. In 1986, the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association (NLTA) and a Royal Commission on Employment and Unemployment strongly criticized the denominational system. Both argued it was unnecessarily expensive and resulted in poor student achievement. The NLTA asked the government to establish a royal commission to investigate the education system. Its request was seconded by the Economic Council of Newfoundland and Labrador and the St. John's Board of Trade.

Royal Commission Appointed

The government appointed a Royal Commission of Inquiry into Education in 1990, which was chaired by Leonard Williams, an Education professor at Memorial University. The Commission's mandate was to investigate and make recommendations concerning all aspects of the organization and administration of the province's primary, elementary, and secondary school systems. During the next two years, the Commission held 36 public hearings in 29 centres across the province and met with students, parents, teachers, principals, school district staff, government agencies, and other interested parties to seek advice and gain insight into the education system. It also conducted research projects to investigate such matters as the cost of the denominational system, the use of instructional time, curriculum delivery, and the history of cooperative services in education.

In September 1991, the Commission surveyed 1,001 people equally distributed throughout the province and found that 79 per cent favoured a single school system for all children. The most widespread reported complaints against the denominational system were that it was needlessly expensive, did not adequately educate the province's youth according to North American standards, and was undemocratic; although the government provided the money, church-appointed officials decided how to spend it.

The Commission presented its report, Our Children Our Future, to the provincial government in March 1992. In it, the Commission recommended that there should be a single education system which “involves the formal integration of all faiths and the development of policies and practices which would involve all citizens in schooling and school governance. At stake is not only the moral direction of the school system, but the basic quality of education for all our children.” (221)

Non-Denominational School System

The government took steps to replace the traditional denominational school system with a single secular system soon after receiving the Commission's report. In 1994 it published a white paper called Adjusting the Course, which outlined the government's plan to create a unified inter-denominational education system. To do so, however, the government would have to make constitutional changes to the province's Terms of Union with Canada. Specifically, the province would have to amend Term 17, which guaranteed the churches' rights to administer education in Newfoundland and Labrador.

On 5 September 1995, the province held a referendum in which the majority of voters (54.4 per cent) supported amending Term 17 to create a single inter-denominational education system that would encompass all denominational systems. The federal government approved the revised Term 17 on 4 December 1996 and the province passed legislation later that month re-designating denominational schools as inter-denominational.

During the summer of 1997, however, the Roman Catholic Church, Pentecostal Assemblies, and 29 parents successfully challenged the re-designation process in the Supreme Court of Newfoundland. Justice Leo Barry ruled on 8 July 1997 that the province did not have the right to abolish separate denominational schools and that unidenominational schools could not be closed without consent from denominational committees.

With the education reform process effectively stalled, the provincial government decided to propose a second amendment to Term 17 that would establish a non-denominational education system and remove entirely the churches' rights to administer education in the province. It held a second referendum on 2 September 1997, in which 73 per cent of all voters supported the proposed amendment.

Backed by a substantial majority vote, the province received permission from the federal government to again amend Term 17 on 14 January 1998. The revised Term 17 stated that: “(2) In and for the Province of Newfoundland, the legislature shall have exclusive authority to make laws in relation to education, but shall provide for courses in religion that are not specific to a religious denomination”.

The provincial government passed legislation to create a uniform, publicly funded non-denominational school system and it assumed full responsibility for education in Newfoundland and Labrador. It also established larger school districts, reduced the number of schools operating in the province, and created parent advisory councils to allow the public to make a greater contribution to the education system. School boards became non-denominational and members were to be elected by the public instead of appointed by church.

The Roman Catholic Church challenged school reform at both the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and the Newfoundland Court of Appeal, but court rulings invariably upheld the constitutionality of the revised Term 17. The province successfully adopted the non-denominational system at the start of the 1998-99 school year and it remains in effect to this day. In the wake of this reform, several religion-based private schools opened to accommodate families not in favour of the non-denominational system; these include Holy Cross Community School at St. Alban's and St. Bonaventure's College at St. John's.

Article by Jenny Higgins. ©2011, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site.


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