Almost 150 years later, is it time for Ontario's Catholic and public school boards to amalgamate? We debate the issue.
When the provincial government solicited public feedback in advance of its budget, one suggestion garnered far more attention than any other. A constituent wrote that the province should change its publicly-funded separate Catholic school system by amalgamating it with the public school system.
Unsurprisingly, the contentious proposal was not in the budget.
Where the provincial government is hesitant to touch this political third rail, Torontoist vs. Torontoist is not. For our latest instalment, we debate:
Be it resolved that Ontario should amalgamate its public and Catholic school systems.
There is, of course, an obvious argument that the province should continue to fund Catholic schools as a collective entity separate from our public school system. The problem is that the roots of this argument are borne from the fact that the Constitution Act, 1867 requires Ontario to fund Catholic schools, because in 1867 Catholics in Ontario and Protestants in Quebec were both concerned that Confederation would wipe out their right to exist as religious minorities.
However, it is no longer 1867, and Quebec (correctly) repealed this portion of the Act almost 20 years ago, because Quebec realized long ago what Ontario should have realized by now: funding an entire school system for one religious denomination on the basis of the never-realized fears of people who have been dead for centuries does not provide the basis for good public policy. The entire Constitutional argument for Ontario’s separate school system is one lengthy appeal to tradition, and that is not a good enough reason for the system’s existence–particularly when all it would take to amend the Constitution Act, in this case, is a successful vote in Ontario’s legislature and then a second successful vote in the House of Commons.
If tradition is not a good enough justification for maintaining a Catholic school system, are there other justifications worth maintaining a system which might cost us as much as 1.2 billion dollars per year [PDF]? This is typically the part where supporters of the Catholic school system will pick one of two options. The first option is to propose that Catholic schools are simply a sort of second choice open to all: one explains how Catholic schools are quietly willing to admit non-Catholics. The second option is to argue that Catholic schools promote moral leadership; something may well be said about school uniforms, or the value of faith-based education in some respects. In either option, the fact that Ontario’s Catholic schools often score better on school rankings than its public schools will likely be mentioned.
But: Catholic schools are not a second choice, no matter how many non-Catholics they might admit, because at the end of the day the discretion as to whether to admit or not admit any non-Catholic is up to them, as opposed to being a right available to any citizen or their child. And the “moral leadership” provided by Catholic schools is contrasted by Catholic school boards and administrators who fight against gay-straight alliances and anti-bullying laws, and engage in discriminatory hiring practices.
(There is also the third option, which is to pretend that the shift to a single, secular school board will somehow traumatize the province top-to-bottom. The response to this argument is to point out that Quebec–and Newfoundland, for that matter–have already managed to transition to a single, secular school system, and managed to do so without riots in the streets.)
This is not to say that religious education does not have a place in Ontario. But it is past time to relegate it purely to private schools and supplementary education like Sunday schooling. Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and practitioners of other religions have all been forced to make the choice of either using public schooling or paying for private school. John Tory was quite correct in the 2007 election to decry this situation as deeply unfair to non-Catholic religious practitioners; the problem was that his solution of “publicly fund all religious schools” was exactly backwards, choosing equality via massive public expenditures rather than the simplest solution: one secular school system for one province, and religious education to be available equally–and privately–to all.
Sometimes, and not often, the best public policy is also the simplest. That is the case here. Catholics do not need a separate school system (no matter how much they might want one), and the extra money spent maintaining that system’s bureaucratic redundancies is best spent elsewhere.
Let’s begin with a paradox. The reason we should probably keep the Catholic or separate school system is because it’s not really very Catholic anymore and hasn’t been so for some time. The vision–or is it nightmare?–of heavily habited nuns beating children with rulers as they demand that “God is love” is colossally anachronistic. More than this, even the idea of Catholic schools teaching the church’s catechism and of teachers being committed Catholics is very far from the modern reality of the system.
Which is why more conservative Catholic parents send their children to alternative Catholic schools and complain about the religious indifference of the separate system. I’ve spoken in many of those schools, met countless Catholic teachers, and I can say with some confidence that the majority of those teaching in the Catholic system have no problem with pre-marital sex, gay partnerships and marriage, or contraception, and are often themselves involved in all three. Abortion and perhaps euthanasia remain sticking points but even here there is enormous dissent.
Catholic in name only, as it were. If teachers are from Catholic families and can convince schools that they’re Catholic they often find it easier to obtain jobs and, frankly, the Catholic schools tend to have fewer challenges, if less money, than the public ones.
All of which should, I suppose, be an argument for scrapping them. If a small minority of Catholic schools are still authentically Catholic and if most of the teachers are effectively secular, why bother to continue with the façade? Because if it’s not broken, it’s dangerous and pointless to try to fix it.
First, choice is a good thing and there are still myriad Canadians who would prefer their children to be raised in a school where Christmas and Easter are acknowledged, there is a crucifix on the wall, and ideas of charity and God-based community are mentioned, if not always actively pursued.
Second, the fact is that Catholics faced discrimination and even persecution in Ontario, and the Catholic system is, even if we have forgotten, a symbol of victory over triumphalism and religious bigotry. Third, it would be profoundly divisive to try to dismantle the system now and would force a battle between the secular left and the Catholic teachers’ union, which may be ostensibly Catholic but is solidly progressive. It rejects much of Catholic teaching, especially around sexuality and female equality, but will fight to maintain jobs and identity.
Fourth, the schools and the teachers would still be there, but instead of St. Pius or Sacred Heart would be, oh I don’t know, Dalton McGuinty High. Good Lord, what a thought! It would be impossibly expensive and wasteful to physically move the children and teachers and horribly unfair to both.
The financial savings that might occur, and I am always skeptical about this, would be at the administrative and bureaucratic level, but this would necessitate major compensation and subsequent unemployment. Hardly desirable. As for bringing the province or city together, there’s no real division now based on public and separate education. This isn’t Belfast or Glasgow and it’s fatuous to suggest otherwise.
If gay kids face discrimination, if teenagers who are sexually active feel condemned, if modern sex education is rejected, we have a duty to intervene. But generally that’s just not the case, much to the chagrin of many priests, bishops and right-wing Catholic laypeople. If the publicly funded separate Catholic system does die it will be through suicide rather than execution. We have far greater issues and problems than this one and, in case you’re wondering, I left the Roman Catholic Church two years ago and would never return.