Charest takes flak on Jewish schools

Public schools and separatists say rise in funding is suspect

Écoles privées juives

Heather Sokoloff and Philip Authier, with files from Mike De Souza, National Post and CanWest News Service
_ National Post January 19, 2005 Wednesday
Jean Charest, the Premier of Quebec, fended off accusations yesterday that his Liberal government increased public subsidies to Jewish schools as payback for fundraising from Montreal's Jewish community for the party.
Mr. Charest said the deal to give more public dollars to Jewish schools for teaching the provincial curriculum, as well as to allow them to form an association with public school boards, was in the works for more than a decade.
The agreement entitles Jewish private schools to 100% of the per-student funding allotted to public school pupils, up from the current 60% Quebec pays to all private schools, an increase of about $2,000 per student.
''There is absolutely no link between political financing and the decision taken by the government of Quebec,'' Mr. Charest said at a news conference yesterday.
''If some people want to piece together events to say there is an appearance, they can always try and do that, but I am here so say that clearly that's not the case.''
If the province's 15 eligible Jewish schools sign on, the new funding will cost the province $10-million a year. Only two other private schools in the province -- both Greek -- receive as much funding.
Tuition at Jewish schools, which ranges from $3,500 to $5,000 a year, must not decline once the new money starts flowing, according to the agreement.
The deal was hammered out after the firebombing of a Jewish elementary school library last spring, to encourage cultural exchanges between Jewish students and their counterparts at public institutions, according to the government.
But the funding, designed to improve relations with the province's Jewish community, is having the opposite effect, turning into a public-relations nightmare for Mr. Charest's government.
On Monday, an editorial in Montreal's La Presse newspaper said the Quebec Liberals had awoke the ''old demon'' of anti-Semitism, as various critics suggested the funding resulted from Jewish lobbying efforts influencing the government.
Jean Dorion, president of the Societe Saint-Jean-Baptiste, a separatist organization, issued a statement yesterday demanding the province hold an inquiry into the decision he described as ''suspect,'' in reaction to media reports alleging the decision was linked to fundraising.
Mr. Dorion said if the unproven allegations were true, the move could amount to influence peddling -- which could endanger the province's social peace.
Also yesterday, Bernard Landry, head of the Parti Quebecois, said the Charest government was opening a ''Pandora's box'' with the deal and should reverse it.
Public school advocates, meanwhile, are furious the money is going to the private sector, noting Mr. Charest's government recently stripped the same amount the Jewish schools are slated to receive from the province's post-secondary student loans program.
''If the government found $10-million for this project, that means they've got a lot of money,'' says Andre Caron, president of the organization representing Quebec's French-language public schools, La Federation des commissions scolaires du Quebec. ''We'll be looking forward to having our needs met.''
Mr. Caron says Quebec private schools, which have received government subsidies at the 60% rate since the 1960s, are already generously funded.
More than 17% of Quebec high school students attend a private school, significantly more than any other jurisdiction in the country. Private school enrolment in Ontario, where schools receive no public dollars, is below 5%.
Mr. Caron said he recently asked the government to bring Quebec's support of private schools in line with other provinces, such as Alberta and B.C., where students receive between 35% and 50% of provincial per-pupil grants. ''This signals we are moving in the opposite direction of where we should be going."
In 1998, the former Parti Quebecois government abolished the province's Catholic and Protestant school boards, replacing them with linguistic boards.
But religious groups, including Muslims, have supported the plan for setting a precedent for full funding of their institutions.
''If we are serious about multiculturalism, we have to provide support to the institutions that are the carriers of these institutions,'' said David Seljak, a professor of religion at St. Jerome's University at the University of Waterloo.
The issue has brought scrutiny on funding of the province's private schools. Public opinion on the issue is mixed, according to Luc Savard, a public policy economist at the Universite de Sherbrooke.
He said many feel Quebec cannot afford the educational costs of all the students attending private schools if the schools were to become public.

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