A separate, publicly funded Catholic school system is an anachronism in a multicultural 21st-century society. If that was not already plain to see, then recent reports about the Catholic system should make it so.
First, we learned that many Catholic school boards in Ontario are going out and actively recruiting non-Catholic kids. Reporting by The Globe and Mail’s Caroline Alphonso showed that the boards are opening their doors to non-Catholics in order to boost enrollment and the per-student provincial grants that come with it. According to her analysis of school districts that provided full data, the number of non-Catholic students rose 18 per cent in the past four years and non-Catholics now make up 8 per cent of the student population in Catholic elementary schools.
School authorities went out of the way to thwart her investigation, and no wonder. Catholics schools are supposed to be for, well, Catholics. If anyone can get in, and more and more students are non-Catholic, what reason is there for maintaining a vast network of separate schools?
Now comes another straw for the camel’s back. The latest story originates in the region of Halton, west of Toronto. Last month, the Catholic board there banned donations to groups that “publicly support, either directly or indirectly, abortion, contraception, sterilization, euthanasia, or embryonic stem-cell research.”
That threatened to sideswipe any number of worthy causes, from women’s shelters to umbrella groups, such as the United Way, that distribute money to other organizations. Students protested. Some charities complained. The Education Minister said she was concerned about a lack of community consultation.
The reason for the fuss is obvious. It isn’t that anyone wants to stop people of faith from upholding their principles. If churches or church-going individuals want to deny donations to organizations that offend their beliefs, that of course is their right. The problem comes when those that are making these choices are the leaders of government-supported educational institutions that accept billions of dollars in public funds. Taxpayers begin to ask: Is this what I am paying for? Do I want my money going to those who are against something as basic as access to contraception or as important as stem-cell research? These are reasonable questions.
It was the same a few years ago, when some Catholic boards tried to stop gay-straight alliances, student-run clubs that strive to make schools safe and accepting for LGBTQ youth; or last year, when Catholic-school authorities in Alberta (which also has publicly supported separate schools) complained about a sex-ed curriculum that was too permissive for their taste on issues such as homosexuality.
The contradictions of maintaining a government-backed religious-school system are piling up. How, to take another example, do Catholic school boards justify hiring only Catholic teachers while at the same time working overtime to recruit non-Catholic students? Is that not a form of discrimination – one that, by the way, denies jobs to many qualified teachers and denies talented teachers to many students?
All of these issues just underline how little sense it makes in 2018 to have a separate system of religious schools underwritten by public money. It is unequal: Jewish or Hindu or Muslim schools don’t get government funding. How is that fair in a country that pats itself on the back for giving every citizen the same breaks regardless of background? It is expensive: running two giant school systems side by side – sometimes even two schools side by side, one Catholic, one public – does not come cheap. It is increasingly awkward: the values of Catholic authorities are bound to clash with changing views in the world outside the schoolyard, even if Catholic views themselves are evolving. By accepting the public dollar, Catholic schools open themselves to a scrutiny they would not get if they stood on their own.
Most of all, it is backward. The separate-school system stems from a long-ago compromise between French and English that has no relevance to a society made up of people from every corner of the planet professing every belief under the sun. The bishops of old would shake their mitred heads if they could see what Canada has become. It is time to embrace that new reality and wind up the separate school system.