New education bill will spin fine web of authority

This article focuses on PQ Education Minister, Camille Laurin’s proposal to weaken the mandate of locally elected school boards and transfer important decision making powers to the Quebec Minister of Education. It was published in The Gazette, Montreal, September 14, 1983 under the headline: “New education bill will spin fine web of authority” and again in the News and Chronicle, Montreal, Wednesday November 16, 1983 under the headline: Bill 40 will not develop new form of democracy.

Camille Laurin, Quebec’s education Minister, may claim to be developing a new form of democracy, but his most recent blueprint still displays a determination to create a web of authority that reaches into every corner of the province.

If Bill 40 is enacted into law it will create a new and important vehicle for a political party whose primary aim is the wholesale reconstruction of Quebec society. A new system will be developed through which all substantive elements of Quebec education can be controlled and monitored by the minister.

Laurin’s original intention to eliminate locally elected school boards was not well received by the Quebec public. As a consequence, Bill 40 has introduced some new elements in an effort to make the Minister’s original plans more palatable.

Instead of entirely abolishing locally elected school boards, the bill would simply remove their authorship to develop educational policy. A cursory examination of the responsibilities and powers being allotted to the “new boards” indicates an abrupt end to any role they have been able to play in the more formative aspects of public education.

Future school boards would be exclusively preoccupied with management tasks such as “overseeing services,” preparing “five year plans” for school facilities, disseminating information and coordinating transportation. Saying these boards will have an important role to play in Quebec education is akin to giving a man a vasectomy and then encouraging him to raise a large family because you think he would make a wonderful father.

On the other hand the potency of the Minister’s role will be increased. He will establish the program of study, authorize textbooks, set provincial examinations and issue or revoke teaching permits. He will also establish the rules for the allocation of public funds over which he will have enormous discretionary powers.

A careful study of Bill 40 reveals that, either by law or through regulation, the Minister will have the authority to intervene in virtually any issue regarding Quebec’s schools. Despite Camille Laurin’s claim to the contrary, the Bill clearly indicates that public education in Quebec, already one of the most tightly centralized systems in North America, will continue to be under the complete control of the Education Minister.


Public mandate

Should Bill 40 become law, the Minister of Education through the Quebec National Assembly will become the only level of school government with access to a public mandate. Consequently the Assembly would become the only level of government with the power to raise taxes and dispense funds while the Minister and his appointees inherited all real authority to shape educational policy and programs.

Public pressure forced the Minister to modify an earlier scheme to completely abolish locally elected school boards, but it is now clear that he intends to pursue the same ends through slightly different means. The revised legislative proposal may not abolish the electoral process, but it will be sufficiently complicated to render the “new school boards” virtually inoperative as genuine local governments.

Lionel Groome, a Lakeshore School Board Commissioner, in a recent report to his Board pointed out that some regions will elect up to 60 commissioners who will meet only four times a year. Quebec’s educational map will be redrawn overnight creating 147 new school boards and electing some 500 additional school commissioners. The Bill will produce complete discontinuity in educational leadership for the next generation and create a vacuum of authority which the Ministry of Education will undoubtedly rush to fill.

Camille Laurin’s antipathy for local democracy and subsidiarity is somewhat reminiscent of the 18th century utilitarian, Jeremy Bentham. The slightly mad, but brilliant, Bentham detested democracy or any other form of popular government. That any matter be resolved by a majority vote struck Bentham as being as irrational as would be the case if the laws of mathematics and science went to popular referendum. Then idea of the secret ballot struck him as absurd as did the jury system.

In his later years Bentham saw nothing good in government that did not become subject to the mind of one person, the omnipotent magistrate, motivated solely by pure reason.


Unwieldy and sterile

A public outcry may have induced our 20th century Benthamite to reconsider entirely eliminating the local ballot box. Nevertheless, with Bill 40, Dr. Laurin will create structures that are so unwieldy and potentially sterile that even the diminished sector of our population that still finds the willpower and sense of duty to go to the polls will be turned away be the built in weakness of the Ministers proposed institutions.

When that happens, local democracy, even in its current hollow form, will have ended.


William Brooks was re-elected to the Lakeshore School Board in June 1983. He directs the public information campaign for the Quebec Association of Protestant School Boards’ Special task Force on Re-organization.