MONTREAL — A Quebec education bill that gives the province greater powers to enforce compulsory school attendance is getting a passing grade from the communities it most affects.
Representatives from Quebec's Orthodox Jewish Community and a home-schooling parents' association say they're cautiously optimistic about Bill 144, which grants Quebec's Education Department new powers to inspect private homes or unlicensed schools to ensure children are receiving a proper education.
The bill, which was adopted by Quebec's legislature last week, is partly a response to concerns over unlicensed religious schools, which have faced questions in the past about whether they're following the provincial curriculum.
Under the new regulations, officials can enter the institutions to verify that children who attend them are also getting a conventional education.
They levy fines against those who don't co-operate and track down children who don't appear to be enrolled in a school program.
But the bill also requires the government to create a set of standards for home-schooling, prepare a guide for parents and create an advisory panel on home-schooling that includes parents.
Quebec's education minister said the bill gives the province the ability to enforce the province's education laws while allowing for some individual choice.
"We now have a model that, yes, is flexible, but a model that is realistic and that will work," said Sebastien Proulx.
Abraham Ekstein, a member of a Jewish home-schooling association, believes the law does a good job of balancing children's rights to education and the rights of parents and communities to transmit their culture.
"The challenge will be making sure it's applied in the same spirit in which it was drafted: in a way that respects differences and accommodates the rights and concerns of all individuals," he said in a phone interview.
In recent years, authorities have staged raids at ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools in Montreal that had no permit from the Education Department to operate.
As a solution, some parents in the Hasidic community have taken steps to "regularize" their children's education by registering as home-schoolers with various local school boards, Ekstein said.
He says the system has worked extremely well, estimating there are now close to 1,000 Orthodox home-school students affiliated with Montreal school boards.
Noemi Berlus, the president of a Quebec association for home-based education, says she's "cautiously optimistic" about the bill, which she sees as a chance to "reset the relationship" between home-schooling parents and the province.
She said many parents avoid registering their children with the province because of the difficulty working with certain school boards, whose members disapprove of non-standard forms of schooling.
As a result, it's hard for parents to get access to resources, and even harder to get credit for a student's out-of-class learning, she said.
Many home-schooled kids, therefore, skip the high-school diploma altogether and apply directly to universities, who she says are generally much more willing to accept alternative proof of academic achievement, such as SAT scores and online courses.
Berlus, a mother of two, says parents choose to educate their children at home for many reasons, ranging from frustration at educational budget cuts to scheduling problems to disagreements with the lecture-based format of conventional schooling.
She was introduced to home-schooling when her oldest son, who is gifted, became bored and depressed by the unchallenging classroom atmosphere.
After orginally setting him a strict curriculum, she now allows 11-year-old Leo to spend his days doing what he wants, which is often science experiments and computer games.
"I don't do homework, I just learn from what I do," was how Leo Berlus-Roy explained it in a phone interview.
Berlus said Leo is now organizing a multi-player role-playing game that includes reading a 90-page book, creating a story board and adapting that story to his characters — skills she says go beyond the school curriculum set out for children his age.
While she worries about some aspects of the new framework, her hope is it will lead to a dialogue with the government that helps to meet the needs of home-schooling parents as well as acknowledging what many of them are doing right.
"I think home-schoolers have been innovative, trying and experimenting and getting their children turned onto learning, and there's a lot to learn from them," she said.
"Instead of a confrontational approach between the traditonal system and home-schoolers, I feel we would all benefit if we work together."