November 22nd, 2014
I was doing my regular media scan for news about Ontario Catholic schools, school closings, deficits, and the like when I came across two stories in which Ontario Progressive Conservative education critic Garfield Dunlop was quoted:
"Isn't it amazing that Greg Sorbara, after 12 years in government, would come out with that now and not the year we talked about faith-based funding under John Tory? Now he’s going to be the saviour of secular society? Give me a break.” Dunlop thinks the time is not right to break down a working education system and replace it with something else. “I’m a person who believes in the 72-board system. I believe it functions well. It’s part of our heritage, our culture. In my opinion it’s not negotiable.”
The Progressive Conservatives said school closings would inevitably be in small-town and rural Ontario, where schools are often the hub of the community, and warned that shutting down some of them would not result in huge savings. "Shutting them down and busing kids 15, 20 or 30 kilometres away, I don't think is an option," said PC education critic Garfield Dunlop. "And I don't think it's going to save her $500 million either."
Keith Leslie, "Ontario government planning $500M cut to education funding: NDP", ctvnews.ca, 2014-11-18.
I found these statements rather striking in that the stumbling block that is his support for publicly funded Catholic education seems to have clouded his ability to see clearly.
The primary reason there are so many under enrolled and fiscally inefficient schools in rural, urban, and northern communities is because the children in those communities continue to be divided into Catholic and non-Catholic factions. Yes, many of these schools were once full and declining enrolment has led to their current low enrolment levels. In almost all cases, however, it is Ontario’s religious educational divide that now prevents these communities from realizing the critical mass of students required to support viable and cost effective schools locally. If only the two solitudes could be brought together with Catholic and non-Catholic children attending the same schools in the same classrooms. If only the combined inventory of Catholic and public schools were managed as one inventory for the good of all children in a community – open and accessible to all. As it stands now, it seems the Government will soon force Ontario’s Catholic and truly public school boards to separately close some of their under enrolled schools – condemning the affected children in each board to long commutes elsewhere to go to school. That would be a shame.
Ontario already needlessly busses hundreds of thousands of children past their nearest publicly funded school each day to attend another school farther away (my own children included). Rather than adding to their numbers, we should reduce them by merging the best of the public and Catholic school systems into one system. Closing an under enrolled school in any one school board is inexcusable in a community having two or more schools – irrespective of school board – that could be collectively rationalized to create viable, more fully enrolled, and more cost effective schools in that community. It should be the right of every child to attend a school in their own community if that community has the critical mass of children to support a viable and cost effective school locally. Schools can only truly be the heart of a community when they exist in that community. Schools can only truly be the heart of a community when they unite the community’s children rather than divide them.
In Ontario, non-Catholic families are disproportionately affected by school closings. While Catholic parents can always use their local public school if their local Catholic school closes, non-Catholic parents may not see a sectarian Catholic school as a viable alternative – even in cases where the Catholic school does not exercise its right to reject non-Catholic children. Even at the secondary level where “open access” is supposed to apply, Catholic schools routinely strive to make themselves unwelcoming to non-Catholic families by refusing to honour the Education Act provision allowing children to opt-out of the religious programmes – or by honouring that provision only grudgingly after much insistence on the part of parents.
Throwing money at severely under enrolled rural, urban, and northern schools to fund their inefficiencies is not wise policy for a heavily indebted government that is finding it increasing difficult to fund our truly essential programs. Yet that seems to be what the PC education critic is suggesting above (to be fair, NDP education critic Peter Tabuns seems to suggest the same thing). How else would a school board perform the magic of keeping scores of half empty schools open to save their students from onerous and unreasonable bus commutes? How would that be fiscally conservative – or fiscally responsible? Does Mr. Dunlop recognize the relative costliness of under enrolled schools? Does he recognize the costliness of the massive overlap and duplication in our school system?
The number of surplus pupil places in Ontario schools has ballooned from 120,000 when the Liberal government first took power to over 416,000 today (Ministry of Education figures). This week, Education Minister Liz Sandals told the legislature Ontario spends “about $1 billion on empty seats”. That’s annually. Something has to be done. Sandals says her government will abide by the constitutional requirement to fund separate schools, but she needs to explain why – given that requirement is no more of an obstacle to the elimination of Catholic school funding than she or her government wish it to be. Quebec and Newfoundland preceded Ontario in eliminating similar constitutional requirements through straightforward bilateral amendments with Ottawa in the late 1990s. Both now have a single public school system for each official language (one English and one French).
The 19th century politicians whose actions established "our heritage" with respect to religious schools never intended to elevate Catholic Ontarians into a position of privilege or advantage over Ontarians of every other faith. The Catholic school system was at first a reciprocal privilege granted when Ontario and Quebec shared a joint legislature in the United Province of Canada.
Quebec (Lower Canada) Protestants were granted a separate school system so that their children were not forced to attend the predominately Catholic public schools used by the Catholic majority. Similarly, Ontario (Upper Canada) Catholics were granted a separate school system so that their children were not forced to attend the predominately Protestant public schools used by the Protestant majority. Mutual Catholic-Protestant and Anglo-Irish animosities were significant motivations for these developments -- animosities that are virtually non-existent today. Language was another factor.
Ontario's public school system is no longer Protestant and Quebec eliminated publicly funded religious schools in 1997. Ontario and Quebec societies are no longer 99% Christian, but are now far more diverse. The original “reciprocity” of religious school funding has now evolved into a very one-sided privilege. If there was any “deal” at Confederation, it has long been broken. It is appalling that our politicians refuse to acknowledge that and do something about it.
Education in Ontario is at a critical juncture. Ontarians must speak out now to make sure our politicians make decisions in everyone's best interest -- not kowtowing to narrow and unfairly privileged religious interests. No less than the quality of our children’s education, our communities, and our collective quality of life is at stake.