Fewer know that all taxpayers bear the costs of Catholic schools equally. All Ontarians bear a tax burden based upon their income and property, not their faith. School support designations on municipal tax forms have no effect on the total funding any school board receives. School board funding levels are now determined based on enrolment and other documented needs.
Fewer still know that public funding for Catholic schools began way back in 1841, when Ontarians were a lot more religious than today and could generally be classified as either Catholic or Protestant -- neither of which had much tolerance for the religious teachings of the other. While the law allowed each group to have schools and teachers of their own “religious persuasion” (the term used in the law), in practice that right only really applied to Catholics. The “Protestants” (non-Catholics) were all lumped together, despite the objections of Anglican clergy who agitated for their own separate schools.
Ontario has changed in many ways in the ensuing years. The mutual intolerance that might have provided a justification for Catholic separate schools in the 19th century is largely non-existent today. Where it does exist, it tends to focus on non-Christian faiths. The Catholic faith, in fact, is now uniquely privileged in being the only faith for which religious education is still funded at all. Far from being a disadvantaged minority, Catholics are now the largest religious group in the province by a wide margin and are arguably the least in need of special consideration or government largesse. Catholic families alone are guaranteed a choice of schools wherever they live in Ontario. Catholic school boards, though funded by all taxpayers, have an absolute right to reject non-Catholic children until grade 9, when “open access” (non-discriminatory admission) is supposed to apply. Catholic school boards have an absolute right to reject non-Catholic teachers at all grade levels -- a right they seem to exercise to the fullest.
Today Ontario is grappling with fiscal challenges of historic proportions. The province has a monstrously large deficit and a debt of such magnitude that it threatens to unravel the rich tapestry of social programs to which Ontarians have become accustomed. Over $10 billion is lost to interest on Ontario’s debt every year, representing an enormous opportunity cost. Debt servicing, in fact, has become Ontario’s third largest expenditure behind health and education. Debt rating agencies have already downgraded Ontario’s debt rating or have put the province on credit watch with a negative outlook -- developments that will lead to even higher debt servicing costs going forward. If corrective measures are not taken quickly, events will spiral out of our control.
To deal with their fiscal crisis, the Ontario government is now, somewhat arbitrarily and heavy-handedly, imposing wage restraint and fee rollbacks on doctors, teachers, and other public servants. Predictably, these groups are none too happy about that. Doctors, nurses, and teachers form the vanguard of what many Ontarians regard as the most important of our social programs: health and education. Before asking them to take it on the chin for the good of the province, the government had better be able to demonstrate that it has done what it can to minimize their pain by eliminating unnecessary expenditures first. We do not believe the Ontario government can demonstrate that -- particularly and perhaps most notably in the education sector.
Ontario currently funds four overlapping school systems where only two would do the job. Too many communities have both an under enrolled public and Catholic school that could be combined into the better of their two buildings to create a more cost effective, fully enrolled school. Hundreds of thousands of Ontario children are bussed past their nearest publicly funded school each day to attend another one farther away. Tens of thousands of high school students are being short changed academically, attending low enrolment high schools that cannot achieve the critical mass to offer the same level of program choice as their higher enrolment counterparts. Most often they cannot achieve that critical mass only because high school students in their communities are divided into Catholic and non-Catholic camps. All Ontarians, regardless of faith, pay a steep price to offer the members of an unjustly favoured faith a “choice” denied to all others. That price is paid in opportunity as well as in dollars.
In 21st century Ontario, Catholic school funding is not necessary. The exclusivity of that funding for the Catholic faith alone offends the equality guarantees of nearly every major human rights instrument to which Canada is a party. Catholic schools are also a significant expense that if eliminated would provide savings to blunt the effects of austerity on our truly essential programs. It is time for fair and fiscally responsible education reform.
Ontario's constitutional "obligation" to fund Roman Catholic separate schools is largely illusory, as it can be removed very quickly or can even be ignored. Quebec, Newfoundland, and Manitoba all removed or ignored very similar constitutional "obligations" before moving to a single public school system for each official language (English and French). It is time Ontario followed their example.