The question of funding for Catholic education in Ontario is similar to the question of reforming the first-past-the-post system we employ for electing members of parliament – any rudimentary thinking on the issue would show it to be egregiously undemocratic and discriminatory, yet politicians are consistently able to hide behind a perceived public distaste for altering the status quo.
Which may have been the case for much of the past century and a half that separate schools have existed in this province. But as Ontario’s deficit tops $16B, difficult choices will be made across the board to find ways to curb spending. And spending on two parallel system across the province when one would suffice in a majority of jurisdictions seems a simple enough example of eliminating an easily-defined redundancy.
Yet “it’s possible to overstate the savings that would be realized by switching to a single system,” writes Adam Radwanski in the Globe and Mail. “In larger cities, running parallel boards doesn’t really cause that much waste. But in smaller towns that really only need one school and one layer of administration, it’s a different story.”
For those of you who need a brush-up on the history of Catholic funding in Ontario, in September, Torontoist assembled a useful history of Catholic school funding in the province to bring people up to speed. It was in response to a decision from Catholic school boards to disallow Gay-Straight Alliances in their schools, and the ensuing protest at Queen’s Park. These and other social issues – debating the continued use of kilts, which many school boards feel have become hyper-sexualized – have made headlines recently.
It goes without saying that the policy of funding Catholic schools is discriminatory. In fact, the very notion of ‘separate-schools’ is anathema to the inclusive multicultural society Canada strives so hard to fabricate. And the issue here is not with religion per se, or any specific denomination: the systemic funding of any one religious denomination over another is textbook discrimination, and it would be no different if the catalyst for funding separate schools was for kids with blue eyes, or students who like soccer. So simple and straightforward discrimination this is that one wonders why some provinces continue this historical error.
And the trend in funding separate schools is on the decline in Canada. Only Alberta, Newfoundland, Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Northwest Territories, and Yukon continue to fund Catholic schools with taxpayer money, while the rest have moved away from separate funding.
Canada has also been found in violation of article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1999 by the United Nations Human Rights Committee for its decision to continue funding Catholic schools to the exclusion of other religious denominations.
In the 2007 Ontario election campaign, then-Progressive Conservative leader John Tory found out just how unpopular the measure of separate school funding was when he made expanding the level of separate school funding a focal point of his campaign. Tory saw the injustice of Catholic funding for what it was, but opted to extend the discrimination by offering taxpayer money to other religious denominations for their schools, rather than curtail separate funding altogether.
Needless to say, Mr. Tory lost the election, largely on that one issue. And McGuinty, the ‘Education Premier,’ coasted to victory opposing it.
The flip-side to this, as Radwanski points out, is that is opposing Tory’s plan to expand the separate funding, McGuinty sided himself not with reform, but with the status quo. But as an Irish-Catholic himself, and one who is married to a separate-school teacher, McGuinty is in a unique position to tackle to problem. “Nobody will have more capital to address this particular issue,” writes Radwanski.
And McGuinty can spearhead these critical changes to the education system with the veil of economic reform and deficit-reduction as his shield. Finance Minister Dwight Duncan has signaled that only Health Care and Education are ‘key’ ministries that will not see significant reductions in programs and operating budgets, but with the scope of the deficit increasing, expect Duncan to have an eye towards finding any and all redundancies and dismantling them as quickly as possible.
The Ontario legislature has adjourned until February 21, 2012, awaiting the release of economist Don Drummond’s report on how Ontario should begin to tackle to problem of reducing its deficit. Radwanski expects that Drummond will not specifically advise the province to move forward on removing the system of funding for separate schools, as there is not now, nor is there ever, much political taste for the move. Yet any omission of even the possibility of removing this funding would be “glaring,” according to Radwanksi, and would not “necessarily be an excuse for Dalton McGuinty to bypass the issue as well.”
PC leader Tim Hudak, who many suspect will be itching for a fight when the Spring session starts, would love an opportunity to label McGuinty as a promise-breaker who cannot be trusted to preserve the historical tradition of protecting religious freedoms.
“It will never be easy, trying to tell Catholics they no longer need their own publicly funded schools,” Radwanksi claims. “But…because of a convergence of social and economic factors, the time is about as right in Ontario as it will ever be.”