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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne says she will preserve the current Catholic school system.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has waded into the debate over the separate school system, reassuring Catholics that government-funded religious education is here to stay.

Ms. Wynne opened a speech to students at Saint Michael Catholic High School in Niagara Falls on Friday by telling them she will preserve the current Catholic school system.

"Our government has been committed to the education system as it exists in Ontario," she said. "We need to do everything in our power to strengthen the system that exists – and that means having a strong Catholic education system, that means having a strong public education system, and English and French in both."

The long-running debate – between proponents of Catholic education and those who contend it would be more cost effective to have a single public system – flared up again this week after an Ontario Catholic school group released a promotional video featuring Free the Children founder Marc Kielburger extolling the virtues of a religious education. At one point, the ad refers to how the religious-based system differs from the public school down the road. Mr. Kielburger did not respond to an e-mail request for comment.

Michael Barrett, president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, said taxpayer dollars should not be used to pit one system against the other. English public school officials expressed their frustration with the video, saying their system also promotes strong values.

The Ontario Catholic School Trustees' Association said its message was being misconstrued, and that the ad was not meant as competition, but rather to showcase their schools to the wider public.

Interestingly, the ad comes at a time when parents are deciding where to send their children for kindergarten and Grade 8 students are making decisions about where to attend high school.

Despite what officials say, nowhere in the country is competition for students more fierce than in Ontario, where four distinct publicly funded systems – francophone public, francophone Catholic, English Catholic and English public – are present in nearly every corner of the province.

Schools have been competing for students for years as birth rates decline. Elementary students must meet certain denominational and language requirements to enroll in Catholic or francophone grade schools. At the secondary level, however, enrolment is more porous.

The Premier called on the school systems to do more to help each other out.

"We need more co-operation across boards," she said. "There are lots of good examples in the province where school boards work together, Catholic and public, French and English. I'm going to be pushing for that kind of co-operation, but I really believe the system as it exists should be strengthened, and I'll be working towards that end."

Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who also spoke at the school, told reporters afterward that Ontario's current school system works well.

"I believe in the Canadian Constitution, which very clearly states that the provinces get to decide what works," he said. "There is no question that the system as it stands now in Ontario has been extremely effective in giving young people both the choices and the opportunities to have a strong publicly funded education."

Follow Adrian Morrow on Twitter: @adrianmorrowOpens in a new window
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