Get on with reform in church schools
After five years of wrangling, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong has finally lost in the battle against the school management reform pushed by the government. The Court of Final Appeal ruled against the church, saying the reform has not violated any constitutional rights it enjoys. The row has been dragging on for too long. Now that the ruling has cleared the way forward, it is time to leave the dispute behind and get on with what is required by the law. The court decision means the church will lose absolute control over the way its 80 aided schools operate. Under a reform bill passed in 2004 to enhance school management accountability, aided schools are required to open up their management to 'outsiders' such as teachers, parents and alumni. Although the sponsoring body can still appoint 60 per cent of the members of a management committee, the church is worried that this committee could adopt approaches different from its beliefs. The changes, it argues, breach the Basic Law which guarantees that religious groups can continue to run schools 'according to their previous practice'.
The church is entitled to take legal action when it feels its constitutional rights have been violated. And the court has a duty to step in when government polices are unlawful. It is good to see that the reform in question has been thoroughly examined and upheld by all three tiers of the courts. The Basic Law, according to the top court, is designed to preserve continuity of the system; but not to prevent changes to elements of the system. The requirement of opening up to outsiders also has no direct impact on religious activities at schools, according to the court. This reasoning makes sense.
The Catholic Church has long had a pivotal role in education. It operates hundreds of schools in Hong Kong, some of which are regarded as among the finest, with outstanding academic results and moral discipline. Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun yesterday stressed the reform would weaken the rights of sponsoring bodies, but the church has no plan to pull out of the education sector.
It is imperative for the Catholic Church and other religious groups to act according to the law. The reform has been delayed for too long. By mid-October, only 489 of 846 aided schools had formed management committees. Another 67 had handed in draft constitutions. The local Methodist Church says it has complied with the requirement to set up a committee in its 19 schools, but maintains the reforms are inappropriate. Sheng Kung Hui, the Anglican Church, has yet to set up committees in 80 aided schools. The government should liaise with the sponsoring bodies to set up committees as soon as practicable. This reform aims to enhance accountability in schools. Now that the court has ruled, it must be implemented as quickly as possible.