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Some can opt-out, some can’t

This Magazine Staff

Things are finally dying down in Quebec, after everyone has been freaking out for the past two weeks over what many people (like Mario Dumont) are calling Jean Charest’s worst political blunder.What happened was this: The provincial Liberals announced that they were raising the funding of private jewish schools that teach the public curriculum from 60% to 100%. There was a tremendous public backlash, the cabinet went nuts, so premier Jean Charest reversed himself and cancelled the funding programme.
It isn’t clear why Charest introduced the programme in the first place. Some accused him of pandering to the money-and-ethnic-vote crowd who had supported him in the last election. Others said that the policy was driven by guilt over the firebombing of a jewish library last year. Still others said that it was simply about equality, since a number of greek private schools currently receive full public funding. The education minister said that it was designed to promote cultural diversity.
No matter. The public wasn’t having any of it; editorialists claim that they haven’t seen such a violent public reaction in years.
I find this a bit curious. On the one hand, I think public funding for private schools, especially private religious schools, is a bad idea. The public system is one of the few places where people are forced to spend time in the company of other creeds, colours, religions, languages, etc. It is a powerful mechanism for public social integration. There should be one public system; if you really want to send your kids to private school, you are welcome to shell out for it.
Yet one way of looking at the Charest decision is to say that he was offering the jewish community the right to opt out of the public system, with full (100%) compensation. You can see the rationale: why should people who are paying out of pocket for their kids’ education also have to pay for it through their tax dollars? As it happens, this principle of opting out with full compensation is exactly the same principle that Quebec has been demanding from the federal government for years. It was one of the main pillars of the Meech Lake accord. Canadians rejected the principle, twice. Nevertheless, last summer The Headwaiter granted Quebec the right to opt-out of national health care agreements, with full compensation. That is why people were calling that agreement “Stealth Meech Lake”.
Anyway, it is interesting that Quebecers are unwilling to grant to the jewish community a right that they have demanded — and now received — from the rest of Canada, namely, the right to opt-out of public programmes that promote social integration and solidarity.

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