Op-Ed: The case for one public school system
Proponents of one school system in Ontario can be forgiven for viewing the initiative with a healthy dose of skepticism, however — especially given Education Minister Liz Sandals’ arbitrary dismissal of the idea shortly after the “Common Ground” initiative’s launch. Sandals was quoted as saying that a move to one publicly funded school system (merging the public and Catholic school systems into one) was “not in the cards” because “both French and Catholic education are constitutionally protected and we will continue to respect the Constitution.”
Sandals conveniently ignored the fact that the very same Constitution that protects Ontario’s wasteful and discriminatory Catholic school system also provides a bilateral amendment mechanism to remove that protection. The Ontario government can propose an amendment rescinding denominational school “rights” at any time, after which the amendment would pass to the House of Commons and Senate for their approval before receiving royal assent. Such an amendment would remove the only legal impediment to the amalgamation of Ontario’s public and Catholic school systems.
Quebec and Newfoundland each secured this sort of amendment in the late 1990s, before each moved to a single public school system for each official language. The entire process took just over four months in the Newfoundland case. Clearly the Constitution is no more an obstacle to the creation of a fair and fiscally responsible school system than Sandals and her government wish it to be. As much was stated earlier this month in a judgment issued by Mr. Justice David Corbett of the Ontario Superior Court:
“The United Nations jurisprudence (finding the funding of religious schools in Ontario unjustly discriminatory) may be of persuasive authority in Canadian courts, but it cannot be used to amend or repeal constitutional provisions. Rather, it is a signal from the United Nations that s. 93 of the Canadian constitution offends international human rights norms. Solving that problem, if it is thought to be a problem, is a matter of political action: constitutional amendment, as was done in Quebec and Newfoundland.”
If the “Common Ground” initiative is really being conducted in good faith and not the appearance of such, the government must weigh the ideas presented there on their merits. Sandals or a successor will soon have to acknowledge that the continued public funding of a completely non-essential Catholic school system detracts from the government’s ability to fund the truly essential programs that contribute to a well-educated workforce, alleviate pain and suffering, and help the genuinely disadvantaged among us. They have but one pot of taxpayer money — and any funds diverted to non-essentials like duplicate, overlapping school systems take away from the funds available for the essential programs we truly rely on.
There is already no shortage of Ontarians affected by school closings, long school bus commutes, unreasonable medical wait times, wage restraint, or other cutbacks or funding shortfalls. At over $10 billion annually and climbing, debt servicing has become Ontario’s third largest budgetary expenditure behind health care and education. Those debt servicing costs represent an enormous opportunity cost.
Without some hard choices, austerity-induced suffering will increase dramatically when today’s historically low interest rates finally rise — and Ontario’s debt servicing costs with them. I am reasonably confident that Sandals and her colleagues could not possibly be cold-hearted enough to let that additional suffering unfold without trying to stop it. I am reasonably confident that the wasteful duplication represented by overlapping public and Catholic school systems will soon end. Fiscal circumstances will force the government’s hand. Far better that they recognize that now to reap the maximum benefits of the hard choices they will eventually be forced to make anyway. Failing to move swiftly to a single public school system will mean increased and unnecessary hardship later.
No more excuses, particularly of the especially feeble constitutional variety. It is a time for leadership.
Leonard Baak is president of OneSchoolSystem.org, Ottawa
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