Around the Jewish World After Public Outcry, Quebec Scraps Plan to Up Funding of Jewish Schools

Quebec’s premier has curtailed a program to increase funding for private Jewish day schools in the face of mounting public anger. Announced last month, the new program would have funded the general studies portion of Jewish schools’ curriculum at the same rate as that of public schools if the Jewish institutions entered into “associate status” with a public school board. The government now provides $4,200 per student in public schools, while the Jewish schools previously were eligible for 60 percent of that, according to the Canadian Jewish News.

The initiative also would have funded cultural exchanges between Jewish and non-Jewish schools and would have required them to form an association with an English- or French-language secular school board.

Though the Greek community already enjoys a similar program for its private ethnic schools, the public outcry over the funding for Jewish schools, at a time when public school financing is stagnant, was fierce. At a hastily convened press conference Thursday afternoon, provincial Premier Jean Charest announced that the program would continue only until the summer.

In addition, only those schools that already had signed on to the program — about half of the 15 Jewish schools that would have been eligible — will get the funding until June.

“The desire for associate status for our Jewish day schools has been a long-standing request of our community, and we are disappointed in the recent turn of events,” said Sylvain Abitbol, president of Federation CJA in Montreal. “Notwithstanding our disappointment, we appreciate the efforts that the government of Quebec has made in support of this policy.

“In moving forward, we remain committed to the principals of rapprochement and will continue to work to build bridges with our fellow Quebecers,” Abitbol said.

B’nai Brith Canada was less conciliatory.

“What is problematic is the issue that people are showing a disregard for the value of an important integration policy,” said the group’s national legal counsel, Steven Slimovitch. “If you have a multicultural society, you can’t just pay lip service to it. You have to attach a dollar value to it as well.

“What I can’t understand is why they would cancel a very valid program for Jewish private schools and leave deals on the table for other private schools,” such as the Greek schools that already enjoy an associate arrangement with the public school boards, Slimovitch said.

“And the losers are the students on both sides, the Jewish and non-Jewish ones. That’s the most disappointing thing about this decision for us,” he said.

Reaction to the plan from all except the schools that would have benefitted from it was resoundingly negative. Letters to the editor in Montreal newspapers said it was unfair to give extra money just to Jewish schools.

“While welcoming added provincial funding for Jewish schools, in fact I would welcome any extra finding for our entire educational system,” one reader wrote to the Montreal Gazette. “My only concern is that this type of policy will ghettoize schools based on religion.”

Quebec’s education minister, Pierre Reid, had said he hoped to improve relations between the Jewish community and the surrounding society through the exchange program, so “we can avoid acts,” such as the firebombing of the library at Montreal’s United Talmud Torah last spring, “that are not representative of Quebec.”

But critics say Reid had acted hastily and in effect was proposing to use taxpayers’ money to pay off the Jewish community for the damage done by the arsonist. They also said the entire system, especially the public school system, was in dire need of cash.

Marcus Tabatchnick, chairman of the English-language Lester B. Pearson School Board, one of the boards that was to partner with Jewish schools, told JTA that “public money should go to public schools, period.”

Sending your children to private schools “is a choice you make,” he said, “but you have to pay for it.”

Traces of anti-Semitism reared their heads in the commentary opposing the plan. Some of the letters written, and comments from the principal of another private school, referred to the Jews as “this special group.”

Charest had defended the plan and bristled at accusations of impropriety. Political opponents had tried to link the proposed new funding to Jewish political contributions to Charest’s governing Liberal Party.

“There is absolutely no link between political financing and the decision taken by the government,” Charest said at a Tuesday news conference.

One Jewish school board official who wished to remain anonymous told JTA, “This is really disgusting, another example of Quebec politics and its application toward the Jewish community. But the Jewish community also dropped the ball on this.

“The way they mishandled this entire issue in a public relations manner was really a joke,” the Jewish official said. “The community looks worse now than they did the past few days, when the funding was being criticized. This is bad for everybody.”

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