The Quebec government has passed a law that gives the government powers to control clandestine schools and increases the province's ability to track home-schooled students.
The legislation comes as a reaction to the controversy over some Hasidic Jewish schools that have been operating without the Education Ministry's knowledge or approval.
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Education Minister Sébastien Proulx said Thursday the legislation allows ministry officials to enter the premises of a suspected illegal school.
"We will be able to act, identify who is there [and ask] 'Who are you? What are you doing? What age are the children? Are they respecting their obligation to go to school?'" Proulx said.
The law also establishes fines for those who are running unofficial schools and allows the Education Ministry to cross-reference its records with Quebec's public health insurance agency (RAMQ), to identify students who are getting their education underground.
Under the new law, starting next July, parents who home-school their children will be required to make themselves known to the local school board and submit an education plan to the Education Ministry for approval.
Between 3,000 and 8,000 children in Quebec are being educated at home without the knowledge of either the official school system or the provincial government, according to an estimate from Quebec's association for home-based education.
The association's president, Noemi Berlus, said some parents are making use of a legal grey zone that has allowed them to operate without the knowledge of the Education Ministry.
"We have some families that are very scared of the government. We have some families that have really lived hell in the school system," she said. "The school system has lost their trust."
Her association does not take issue with the law's requirement to inform school boards and the ministry about parents' decision to teach their children at home, but she contends allowing education officials to reach into children's health-care records is a violation of privacy.
"Our fear is that certain families will go to the extent of not registering their children's birth because they don't want the government to come in and interfere with the way that they are raising their children," Berlus said.
Proulx said the new powers are in line with the province's privacy laws.
"It's certain there are parents who won't like what we are doing. It's normal. Because there are some that are not doing what they are supposed to do," he said.
Not far enough, says CAQ
The Coalition Avenir Québec is arguing that the law will allow previously clandestine schools to continue to exist simply by following the rules set out for home-schooled children, without making sure those children are getting the proper education.
"There are children who don't have history classes. There are children who don't have science. There are children who don't have the opportunity to pass a ministerial exam to obtain a diploma," said CAQ Leader François Legault.
The minimum education requirements are not written into the law and will be published when regulations are ready, by next June.
Legault said every child in Quebec should be forced to follow an identical curriculum, and those who learn outside the traditional system should have to pass the same tests as children in the regular school system.
However, the education minister said home-schooled children don't always learn their subjects on the same schedule, and so standardized testing wouldn't work.
"There are people who think their way of working is the right way," Proulx said.
"What we are saying [is], 'You can't do just anything, but we will respect your rights.'"