The declining school enrolment in the polygamous commune of Bountiful can be explained by reasons other than a high drop-out rate, a lawyer for the community said Tuesday.
A judge is hearing arguments about whether the prohibition on multiple marriage violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He has spent more than two months hearing about the alleged harms of polygamy, including substandard education and poor graduation rates.
On Tuesday, an official with British Columbia's Education Ministry compared enrolment data from Bountiful's two schools with the same data from other B.C. schools and concluded Bountiful students appeared to be disappearing from class rather than progressing into higher grades.
For example, the community's two schools had 16 students enrolled in Grade 8 in the 2004-2005 academic year. Four years later, when they would be expected to be in Grade 12, just three of those students were still in B.C.'s education system.
But Matthew Siren, a lawyer for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints - or FLDS - suggested there are many reasons why a student might not progress to subsequent grades.
They could have dropped out, moved out of the province to finish their studies, graduated early or even died, he said.
"So looking at this graph, you can't determine which of those reasons is the cause for these numbers, right?" Mr. Siren asked Brent Munro, who compiled the data for the ministry.
"No," replied Mr. Munro.
Mr. Siren didn't say which explanation is correct. He did note that many of the students on that list of 16 completed Grade 12-level provincial exams, suggesting they may have finished their studies early.
"If they had met (Bountiful Elementary-Secondary School's) graduation requirements after Grade 11, it would show them not continuing to Grade 12?" said Mr. Siren.
"Correct," replied Mr. Munro.
Bountiful has two schools: Bountiful Elementary-Secondary and Mormon Hills School. Each receives provincial government funding.
Only Mormon Hills is certified to grant official high school diplomas - a distinction it earned for the first time last fall. Bountiful Elementary-Secondary applied for that status in 2007, but that was rejected after inspectors identified several problems with the school's curriculum.
To obtain a high school diploma without that certification, students would be required to attend class elsewhere, either by leaving the community or taking correspondence courses.
Documents filed with the court indicate very few students actually do that. Since 2003, only 25 students from the two schools have ever obtained a graduation certificate or the adult equivalent.
Mr. Siren suggested students in Bountiful were completing the graduation requirements, even if they were denied an official diploma from the province.
Bountiful Elementary-Secondary made headlines on Monday when the right-wing Fraser Institute ranked it among the province's No. 1 elementary schools. The report card rated schools based on standardized exam scores for Grades 4 and 7, which test reading, writing and math. Mormon Hills wasn't included in the report.
The Fraser Institute ratings came up briefly in court on Tuesday.
The provincial government data submitted to the court compared Bountiful with schools in other communities, including Alert Bay and Bowen Island, which are similarly isolated and also can't award high-school diplomas.
Students in those communities must leave or complete correspondence courses to graduate, and their graduation rates were much higher than Bountiful's.
But Mr. Siren pointed to Bountiful's No. 1 ranking, and he noted it was better than Bowen Island's 117th spot.
"Five out of six scores indicated in this report have Bountiful beating Bowen Island," he said.
The constitutional reference was prompted by the failed prosecution of two leaders in Bountiful. Winston Blackmore and James Oler were each charged in 2009 with practising polygamy, but those charges were later thrown out because of how the prosecutor was assigned to the case.
The constitutional hearings were expected to wrap up testimony last month, but the provincial government called additional witnesses this week to testify about government statistics related to the community.
Closing arguments are expected to begin on March 28.