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Globe editorial: Fix the grey area around Catholic school funding

Given the ink spilled over two-tier health care, it feels odd more Canadians aren't overtly distressed by the growing inequity in publicly funded school systems.

According to a Globe and Mail analysis, English-language Catholic elementary schools in Ontario have seen a steady rise in enrolment by non-Catholic pupils. The data were compiled by the Catholic school boards because the province, incredibly, does not keep track.

The story repeats itself across the country. Catholic school systems have become a destination for parents of other religions who are keen to send their children to institutions where the curriculum is at least partly rooted in faith-based moral dogma, even if it's not their own. In doing so, they are bailing on public systems.

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They should have that choice. The broader question is: Should everyone else have to pay for it? The answer is no.

The exodus in Ontario illustrates why. Money flowing into Catholic boards amplifies the perception they offer a superior quality of education (in some cases, the evidence supports that belief). But it also reduces the resources available to the public system, which hinders quality, which causes some wealthier parents to abandon the system for private schools, which lowers funding, and so on.

Parents must be able to choose, yes. But it shouldn't be between a beleaguered, underfunded public system and a less beleaguered publicly funded Catholic system. It is one thing to still fund Catholic systems in a secular country, but another thing to allow them to siphon off students from the public system – in some cases just to maintain enrolment levels and get the funding that comes with each pupil.

Quebec and Newfoundland have already answered the question of whether provinces should be financing Catholic schools: They said no. The new reality in those provinces required constitutional amendments, and in both cases they passed without drama. It is eminently possible for places like Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan, where funding overlaps are the subject of an ongoing court case, to do likewise.

Even if they don't, they must make sure that secular public systems are properly funded. Catholic systems are here to stay in provinces that want them, but it is wrong for them to take money and students away from public schools. This is especially true in rural areas, where students who lose their schools because of low enrolment end up having to travel many kilometres to find a replacement.

Ontario and other provinces should put an end to this grey area and make sure that Catholic schools only get funding for the students they were intended to teach.

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