There’s an appealing symmetry to John Tory’s proposal to give public funds to “faith-based” schools. Twenty years ago, he was an aide to then-premier Bill Davis when his Progressive Conservative government extended to senior grades the public financing of Roman Catholic schools in Ontario. Mr. Tory witnessed the backlash that finished off a 42-year Conservative dynasty a few months later.
Now, as the party leader, Mr. Tory is attempting to deal with the logical objection to the Davis policy that it gave favoured treatment to Catholics, with an invitation to other religions to join the publicly funded education system. “This is a question of fairness,” said the recently released Conservative policy document.
Mr. Tory’s proposal promises to revive a debate about the role religion ought to play in the school system. Two decades ago, it turned nasty as the fires of anti-Catholic prejudice were rekindled. And while there’s no guarantee that these attitudes won’t surface again, all three political parties are doing their best to avoid this. But anything can happen in an election campaign, as Mr. Davis’s successor, Frank Miller, discovered in the 1985 election that toppled his government.
A coalition of 10 groups is calling for an end to the $6-billion of public financing for Ontario’s Catholic boards. “Maintaining public funding for Roman Catholic schools is, in effect, granting special privilege to one specific religious group at the expense of the Ontario public,” said Malcolm Buchanan of the One School System Network. “This is not right or democratic.”
The coalition, which includes Muslim and Hindu organizations, is eager to give the issue a higher profile by supporting candidates who support its cause. So far, however, only those running for the Green Party are likely to enlist. The Liberal and New Democratic parties are contemptuous of the PC policy proposal but they insist that the issue of school financing can’t be approached as long as the existing system needs repairs.
Premier Dalton McGuinty has ruled out any move to amend the Constitution to integrate the Catholic and public systems even though Quebec and Newfoundland successfully used that option to reform their school systems.
Education Minister Kathleen Wynne dismisses both the PC idea of non-Catholic schools and the network’s push for one secular system.
“Both sound simple but they’re not, and at this point in our history in Ontario we really need to support the system as we inherited it,” she said.
NDP education critic Rosario Marchese offers a similar view, saying that it’s a low priority while English as a Second Language programs need reinforcing and there is a shortage of school librarians. He admits there is an argument to be made against singling out Catholic schools for support but “it’s not something that people [in the NDP] are prepared to tackle.”
The question is whether the NDP and the Liberals can avoid getting into the issue of financing of Catholic schools even as they savage Mr. Tory’s proposal. Even if they can’t – if Mr. Buchanan’s group gets the public’s ear – will enough voters care? In 1985, the polls showed that a bare majority of Ontarians opposed funding Catholic schools but this is a vastly different province now.
An inquiry at that time concluded that the special status of Catholic schools was discriminatory – “more clearly an act of political will than a fulfilment of a constitutional obligation” – and opened the door to public financing of private schools in a manner very similar to what the PCs envision.
Is this what modern, multicultural Ontario wants? Or will voters signal they want a single system? Mr. Tory has opened the door. Let’s have a real debate.
…this post forwarded by a Windsor Humanist (Jim.Mac) after a June 23, 2007 article by Murray Campbell in The Globe And Mail