It's not hard to understand why Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne would try to shut down another debate about the appropriateness of Catholic school funding before the discussion even starts. Revisiting the Confederation pact that grandfathered the "right" of Catholics to their own publicly funded schools has been a career-ending proposition for almost every Ontario politician who's dared.
Sooner rather than later though, some courageous leader will have to convene Ontarians for a conversation about what kind of public education system best suits a province juggling with the twin challenges of religious diversity and scarce resources. This Premier is not there yet, though the case for Catholic school funding strains evermore under the weight of its own contradictions.
"Our government has been committed to the education system as it exists in Ontario," Ms. Wynne insisted last week in the face of objections to a new promotional campaign launched by the Ontario Catholic School Trustees Association. The social media campaign – which invites parents to "explore the distinctive value" of Catholic education – underscored the competition for students (and per pupil funding) as schools grapple with declining enrolment.
Emptying schools have become the norm almost everywhere outside the bustling burbs. Despite a bump in enrolment owing to the implementation of full-day kindergarten, fewer kids start school each year than graduate from high school. In towns across the province, half-empty Catholic and public schools sit in close proximity to one another, each with its own overhead.
Why not merge the current four systems (English public, English Catholic, French public, French Catholic) into two linguistic-based ones? In 2012, a ratepayers group called the Federation of Urban Neighbourhoods estimated the savings at as much as $1.6-billion on a K-12 education budget of about $22-billion. Spending will rise this year to $24.1-billion.
The 2012 Drummond commission on streamlining Ontario public services might have been expected to explore the merger issue. But it hid behind the Constitution. That's too bad, since the more credible estimate of savings it could have provided would have informed what remains an inevitable debate.
That said, the principal reason Ontario should do away with Catholic school funding is not financial. There is simply no longer a case to fully fund a sectarian education system whose teachings are at odds with the fundamental values of Ontario society. The Catholic system's resistance to gay-straight alliances is emblematic of the kinds of conflicts that will multiply in our diversity-laden future.
Catholic schools face the impossible choice of diluting church doctrine to comply with evolving societal values, embodied in legislation such as the Accepting Schools Act, or flouting such laws altogether. Either way, they undermine the justification for continued funding.
No one is as aware of that more than Ms. Wynne. As Ontario's education minister in 2007, this is what she said when her opponent proposed extending public funding to all faith-based schools: "They [Ontarians] do not want to see kids segregated from one another …We need an inclusive system that allows kids to learn together, to be together and understand each other."
Still, she was no more ready to tackle Catholic funding then than she is now. She called the debate a "distraction" and ducked responsibility by invoking the Constitution. Plus ça change.
The Confederation pact that guaranteed Ontario Catholics their own schools is a relic of an era when religion was a proxy for language. Even before Confederation, when Upper and Lower Canada formed one province, Quebec's English-Protestant minority joined with its French-Catholic majority to ensure the protection of Ontario's Catholics at a time when sectarian conflict was rife.
In 1997, invoking evolving societal values and increasing non-Catholic immigration, Quebec easily obtained a constitutional amendment to replace its faith-based school boards with linguistic, secular ones. There is no reason Ontario could not do the same.
As the Canadian Civil Liberties Association has noted, the origin of Catholic school funding in Ontario lies in a mid-19th century desire to protect religious freedom and equality, as both concepts were then conceived. But the continued application of that constitutional compromise "only serves to erode those very principles today."