When religious groups meet with the chairwoman of the Toronto District School Board to talk about the possibility of their schools joining the public education system, Sheila Ward's response is always the same: I would love to have you, but I just don't see how it could work.
Over the past few months, Ms. Ward, whose school board is the largest and most ethnically diverse in Ontario, has been sought out by envoys from various faiths who sensed that one of their key battles - securing government funding for non-Catholic religious schools - would soon gain public currency. The groups wanted to build bridges and talk details, but Ms. Ward warned of impracticalities, chaos and inequities.
"I think there's immense hurdles," she said. "I don't think the thing has been thought through."
Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory's controversial proposal to extend government funding to faith-based schools has become the defining issue of his campaign to win the Ontario election on Oct. 10.
However, Mr. Tory has not elaborated on how the plan would work, preferring to leave details to a proposed commission led by Bill Davis - who provided funding to Catholic high schools as premier in the mid-1980s - that would conduct public consultations, oversee pilot projects and make recommendations. Still, some advisers to Mr. Tory concede privately that more information would help quell public concern that such a move would unravel the public education system and ghettoize children.
Despite the lack of details, it is possible to sketch a rough blueprint of how the proposal might gel. Giving Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and other religious schools the option of entering the public system would, in many ways, create a smaller, more diverse version of the province's existing, constitutionally protected Catholic system. Such schools would likely become part of willing school boards, and could stay in their existing buildings; Mr. Tory has said the government would not pay to construct new schools.
In order to receive the same government funding as public schools, Mr. Tory has said faith-based schools would have to meet three requirements: teach the Ontario curriculum; employ fully credentialed teachers; and participate in accountability measures, including standardized tests and provincial inspections. The Conservatives say the plan, which would take three years to implement, would cost $400-million, while the Liberals contend it would be at least $500-million.
While estimates differ, some supporters predict perhaps just 10,000 of the approximately 53,000 students who now attend private religious schools would move to public faith-based schools. For many supporters, the issue is more about fairness than personal interest. Opponents, however, warn of an exodus of pupils to religious schools, which would drain existing public school budgets and, they argue, undermine attempts to achieve social cohesion.
Of the 53,000 students, about 35,000 attend Christian schools of various faiths. Many schools, especially those from fundamentalist sects, are opposed to government intervention of any kind and unwilling to compromise their principles by teaching, for instance, sex education and evolution, topics included in the Ontario curriculum.
"Depending on what it looks like, I suspect some will and some won't," said John Vanasselt, spokesman for the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools, noting the curriculum "would be a huge factor" if it requires concessions on religious beliefs.
Mr. Tory further stoked the debate when he said that Christian schools would be allowed to teach creationism, only to later say that he meant only in religion class. But opponents ask what would happen when religious lessons conflict with the science curriculum.
About 12,000 pupils now go to private Jewish schools, a community that has led the charge for extending government financing.
"In general, truthfully, the way it's going to play out is probably most of the Jewish schools will want to opt in," said Ira Walfish, chairman of the Ontario Multi-Faith Coalition, which advocates equal funding for faith-based schools.
The remaining students attend independent schools of other faiths, where interest also varies.
At the Islamic School of Cambridge, principal Khalid Khokhar says the parents of the 100 or so children who attend the elementary school in Cambridge, Ont., would appreciate not having to pay about $5,000 a year for their education. However, they are waiting to hear specifics.
"We don't know what the conditions are going to be, how the things are going to be worked out. Those details are still too far [away]to be emerging at this point. But in principle, yes," Mr. Khokhar said, adding that his school, like many other private schools, uses the provincial curriculum.
As well, parents who now send their children to publicly funded schools could switch them to public religious schools.
No one has attempted to estimate how many would take that course. And new faith-based schools could also be created, giving rise to concerns about which religions would be recognized. A senior Conservative strategist said Ontario would look to criteria set by other provinces, such as requiring religions to have track records operating private schools for a certain number of years before they are eligible for public funding.
However, once the Ontario government starts funding non-Catholic religious schools it could not differentiate between faiths, says James Morton, past president of the Ontario Bar Association.
"You can't distinguish between the Church of Scientology, for example, and the Baha'i faith. You may make that distinction in your own personal life, but the government certainly cannot go in and start saying this is a valid religion, this is not a valid religion," said Mr. Morton, a Toronto lawyer who is president of a federal Liberal riding association.
Mr. Tory has said it would make sense to attach public religious schools to existing school boards, rather than setting up separate districts for each faith. Boards - either public or Catholic - would be able to decide to accept religious schools, which the strategist noted would represent new sources of revenue in a time of declining enrolment. Such a model would be similar to the situation in Edmonton, where one Jewish and several Christian schools receive public funding and are part of the public school board.
But opponents wonder how exactly that would work under the existing structure in Ontario, given that public school boards are governed by locally elected trustees. If religious schools join existing school boards, critics ask if they would demand to elect trustees representing their particular faiths.
Ms. Ward of the Toronto District School Board also sees trouble. She believes that parents who now pay up to $15,000 annually to give their children resource-rich religious educations would not stand for the concessions the public system would require, such as giving up small class sizes. As a result, they would demand the right to continue paying tuition to, among other things, hire more teachers. If that were permitted, Ms. Ward, who is a Liberal but is not involved in the provincial election, predicts chaos with wealthy parents insisting on the same power and less wealthy families crying foul.
Opponents also ask how public faith-based schools would be inspected given that public schools are not inspected by the Ministry of Education - they are governed by board administrators and elected trustees. (Every two years, the province inspects private religious high schools that offer Ontario diplomas to ensure they are adequately delivering the provincial curriculum.)
Faith-based schools wishing to go public could stay in their current buildings, which a board could lease and cover the operating costs. Such schools could also be housed in existing public schools, either those that are empty or underutilized, meaning that two or more schools could be located in the same building, the strategist said.
Mr. Tory has mused about children from different public schools - both non-religious and religious - sharing school buses and playing on the same sports teams. However, some believe such a view masks a host of logistical issues.
"I think there are really serious impracticalities," said Roger Hutchinson, a retired professor of church and society at the University of Toronto's Emmanuel College who is "with some reluctance" against the proposal. He pointed to small towns, noting a potential lack of buildings and teachers.
As well, disputes could arise in smaller communities lacking a school from a particular faith. It is unclear if parents could demand that their children be bused to the closest such school, which now often happens for Catholic children in underserved areas.
While private school teachers do not have to be certified by the Ontario College of Teachers, many are, although no one knows how many. Those who are not would apply to become a member of the regulatory body which conducts paper-based reviews of applicants' academic qualifications.
The process takes about six weeks for people trained in the province but longer for those educated elsewhere. The strategist said teachers from the private religious system could also be grandfathered into the system.
Teachers in the proposed religious system would likely have to belong to the same faith as the school, as in the Catholic system.
Opponents caution that in addition to diverting money and buildings, faith-based schools could drain teachers from the current public system.
"Our teachers are not people who happen to be Catholic; they are Catholic teachers. That means they buy into what we as Catholics believe," said Noel Martin, director of Catholic education for the Ontario Catholic School Trustees' Association. "No organization, no company would hire people who don't buy into their philosophy and it's the same with us."