The Case for Merging Ontario’s Public and Catholic Schools
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Ontario’s politics towards education is often a heated issue, with the 3 main parties going back-and-forth on budget, curriculum expectations, and teacher’s unions. However, there is an unspoken rule amongst the discussion of Ontario’s education shared by all parties: don’t mention the publicly subsidized Catholic schools.
Within Ontario, the right to have a publicly-funded separate school system for the Roman Catholics has been enshrined within Canada’s constitution since 1876; although the matters of education still fall under provincial jurisdiction. Catholic schools are often called Separate schools in Ontario. Québec and Newfoundland and Labrador both stopped publicly backing their Catholic schools through a constitutional amendment. Section 43 would allow the Provincial government to amend the constitutional mandate requiring separate schools, only needing the approval of Queen’s Park and the federal government.
About half of all publicly supported school boards are Catholic, while other religious schools do receive any public funding whatsoever. 2 020 301 students attend a publicly-funded school, while around 100 000 students private schools. Private schools vary in what religion they teach, with some being entirely secular.
Preferential Treatment for the Catholic’s Education
Ontario is home to a wide variety of religions, as illustrated by this graph:
Even though about half of all schools push Catholic teachings, approximately 70% of Ontario is not Catholic. No other religious schools receive any sort of taxpayer dollars, meaning a Catholic family can simply put their children into a separate school and have their education supplied by the government. On the other hand, a family seeking non-Catholic faith-based education could pay thousands per child. The provincial government is showing clear favourites by not publicly financing any other religious schools — and considering Canada’s highly diverse religious population — it is a serious misstep towards equality.
The problem extends deeper than just preferential treatment towards Catholic education. Separate school boards have the right to discriminate against non-Catholic teacher candidates and do so very openly. For example, the London District Catholic School Board (LDCSB) explicitly states that a reference from a pastor confirming you are a practicing Catholic is required to even apply. “The Board is a denominational employer and preference is given to Catholic Teachers,” is near the top of the LDCSB’s teacher career info page. On the surface, many generally give this a pass as this is an organization devoted to pushing Catholic teachings. But when half of all public teaching jobs are locked behind not being Catholic, religious beliefs will seriously impact a teacher’s career and job opportunities.
In 1999, the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) released a statement that Ontario fully funding Roman Catholic education while ignoring any other religious schools is deemed discriminatory. This case was known as Waldman v. Canada where Waldman wanted Jewish education for their children however at the cost of $95 000 dollars; an expense a Catholic family wouldn’t have to incur. The committee gave Canada 90 days to respond to what steps will be taken to end the unfair practice. Ideas ranging from allocating funds to other Religious schools or removing all public investment from separate boards were thrown about. However, nothing happened at all from this case, and Ontario moved on — still funneling public money to its Catholic schools.
As both secular and Catholic school boards both require public funding, there’s a constant struggle between the two to acquire more money from the government at the expense of the other. Since funding is based on enrolment numbers, Catholic schools have been increasing their non-Catholic student population.
A 2016 Globe and Mail report shows how Catholic Boards are trying their best to siphon students off the public stream into the separate schools in a squabble for public funds.
In wake of recent budget cuts, being able to keep a school surviving is becoming increasingly harder. Wasting time and resources trying to pull students from each stream will only put more strain on the already tight school boards especially in remote areas. When a local student population is divided into two streams, in this case, secular and separate; the closure of a community’s schools will become more likely.
Inefficient Use of Funds
Funding for education is always a heated issue amongst politicians, most recently with Doug Ford’s controversial OSAP and high-school funding cuts. A 2012 paper from the Federation of Urban Neighbourhoods estimated a potential $1.2–$1.6 billion in annual savings if Ontario merged the two boards. Rarely do cuts to schools come as close to the near billion and a half we could save annually if we merged the two boards.
The 2012 paper from the Federation Of Urban Neighbourhoods — a province-wide organization of neighbourhood associations — looked at a multitude of factors, from administrative costs to transportation costs.
Even then, we never hear politicians today push this as a cost-saving measure, ever. The only time it was brought up was in the 2007 Ontario Election where conservative leader John Tory brought up the idea of extending funding to other faith-based schools. It was almost political suicide for him, namely where he failed to defend an onslaught of opposition when it became a focal point for his campaign. Even throwing the idea around can derail an entire campaign, and when he lost in 2007 to the Liberal Party every party went silent on the matter.
Taking a Page from Newfoundland and Québec
Opponents to a possible merger tend to try to shut down discussion by mentioning how taxpayer-funded Catholic schools are laid out within the constitution and it could be a political nightmare to override it. Section 93 of the Canadian constitution guarantees Catholic education to receive public funds. This was drafted at the time where public schools had a clear protestant-bias, showing how Section 93 was a political deal to keep the Roman Catholic population happy so they didn’t have to send their children to protestant schools.
Obviously, schooling has seen drastic changes since 1867, with secular schools replacing the old protestant based education. In 1985 shortly after the institution of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms the Lord’s Prayer was no longer allowed to be recited within Ontario’s public schools.
Both Quebec and Newfoundland were able to get rid of their publicly supported separate schools through a resolution passed through their provincial parliament and the federal government. The only real barrier to stopping a merger or more inclusive funding is political, with politicians trying to appease the once-minority Roman Catholic population.
The issue of publicly funded separate schools has always been an overlooked topic within Ontario's politics, a subject that even mentioned could cause a party to lose focus or cost an entire election. Continually supporting these faith-based schools using public funds is a serious misstep in Ontario’s strive for equality even in our diverse province. Ontario isn’t living up to it’s mission of fairness with Catholic schools being allowed to take public funds to teach Catholic beliefs while any other faith-oriented schooling is simply out of luck, requiring families to pay out of pocket if they wanted different religious education.
It’s important even considering the political risks involved that we bring a merger or inclusive funding back on the table for discussion. Not only are the potential costs savings an impactful way to combat our deficit, but it’s pulling Ontario back from being a province of equality and inclusion.
We only need to speak up and start a province-wide discussion to tackle this controversial issue.
MacLeod, Angela, and Sazid Hasan (2017). Where Our Students are Educated: Measuring Student Enrolment in Canada, 2017. Fraser Institute. http://www.fraserinstitute.org/
Resolution of the Québec National Assembly authorizing the amendment of section 93 of the Constitution Act, 1867, April 15, 1997
Government of Ontario. “Education Facts, 2017–2018* (Preliminary).” Untitled Document, Government of Ontario, http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/educationFacts.html.
Ontario Population 2019, http://worldpopulationreview.com/canadian-provinces/ontario-population/.
Pardy, Bruce. Does Constitutional Protection Prevent Education Reform in … https://www.fraserinstitute.org/sites/default/files/does-constitutional-protection-prevent-education-reform-in-ontario.pdf.
Philips, William. “ONTARIO PUBLIC AND CATHOLIC SCHOOL MERGER STUDY.” Federation of Urban Neighbourhoods, Mar. 2012, https://urbanneighbourhoods.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/ingsfromthemergerofontariopublicandseparateschoolsystems.pdf.
“Questions & Answers.” Conference of Independent Schools of Ontario: Questions & Answers, https://www.cisontario.ca/page.cfm?p=293.
Statistics Canada. “NHS Profile, Ontario, 2011.” National Household Survey (NHS) Profile, 2011, 27 Nov. 2015, https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/nhs-enm/2011/dp-pd/prof/details/Page.cfm?Lang=E&Geo1=PR&Code1=35&Data=Count&SearchText=Ontario&SearchType=Begins&SearchPR=01&A1=All&B1=All&GeoLevel=PR&GeoCode=35.
“UN Says Funding of Catholic Schools Discriminatory | CBC News.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 5 Nov. 1999, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/un-says-funding-of-catholic-schools-discriminatory-1.175008.