To bring up the topic, with politicians and the people who advise them, is almost mischievous. It elicits smiles knowing and nervous; signals that they’d love to have the conversation but know it’s best to wait for another day.
But when it comes to the anachronism at the heart of Ontario’s education system, the question has to be asked: If not now, then when?
It will never be easy, trying to tell Catholics they no longer need their own publicly funded schools. But other provinces have done it. And because of a convergence of social and economic factors, the time is about as right in Ontario as it will ever be.
The social ones have received more coverage of late. Catholic high schools’ reluctance to provide supports for gay students – a key component of the province’s emerging anti-bullying strategy, prompted partly by the suicide of an Ottawa teenager – has put the church-and-state issue in sharper focus than usual.
But while less flashy, the financial pressures should be no less difficult for the province to ignore.
By the account of its deficit-plagued government, the best hope for Ontario to get out of debt is a sweeping modernization of its public services. Where is there room to spend less money, without delivering worse service? What duplication is waiting to be eliminated? What would be done differently, if the province were starting over?
It’s possible to overstate the savings that would be realized by switching to a single system. 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.
Beyond that, there is a matter of symbolism. Finance Minister Dwight Duncan is trying desperately to send the message, not only to the general public but also within government, that it’s time to take a fresh eye to most everything. Here is almost the very definition of what he purports to be looking for – a system that can be defended only on the basis of history, rather than current needs.
It does not appear that the public-services review headed by former bank economist Don Drummond, which is supposed to kick-start the cost-cutting process, will go anywhere near Catholic schools. If not, the omission will be glaring. But it won’t necessarily be an excuse for Dalton McGuinty to bypass the issue as well.
In fact, if this is the moment, it is partly because of Mr. McGuinty himself.
An Irish-Catholic married to a separate-school teacher, he has spent the past eight years positioning himself as the “education premier.” Whatever the general state of his popularity, nobody will have more capital to address this particular issue.
Of course, Mr. McGuinty is the same person who successfully defended the status quo by leading the charge against former opposition leader John Tory’s proposal to extend funding to other religious schools. But he could defensibly argue that, by proposing to separate more children by religion rather than bringing them together, Mr. Tory offered the wrong solution. And if he were so inclined, Mr. McGuinty could seize on changing circumstances to explain why his own views had evolved.
To date, Mr. McGuinty has shown no such inclination. Even for him, it would be an enormous political risk. To listen to some political strategists, the only way a provincial leader will ever embrace the idea of a single public system will be as a Hail-Mary pass, aimed at altering a flagging campaign when nothing else is working.
But by then, the moment may have passed. If not now, it could be a very long time indeed.