A Conservative election pledge to fund faith-based schools is a legal minefield that, if implemented, could send the province back in time, a leading constitutional expert says.
Lorraine Weinrib, a law professor at the University of Toronto, is sounding the alarm on a Conservative funding promise that she believes is dangerously unformulated.
“It seems that the proposal really has not been thought out in any detail,” Ms. Weinrib said in an interview.
Conservative leader John Tory has promised a commission to iron out the details of the policy. But Ms. Weinrib said voters are owed the specifics before they decide on the issue.
“I mean, you’re being asked to commit to an incredibly important public policy without knowing what it is.”
However, supporters of Mr. Tory’s proposal say it’s a matter of fairness toward other religions, in a province where Catholics already receive full education funding.
A furore that erupted two weeks ago over creationism offers the first indication of just how problematic the proposal is, Ms. Weinrib said. Mr. Tory was forced to backtrack after saying creationism could be taught at the public, faith-based schools he plans on creating. He later said the religious creation theory, a direct rejection of scientific thought, would be taught only in religion class.
Ms. Weinrib, a former deputy director of constitutional law and policy in the Ontario government, wonders how it is possible to grant schools religious freedom while at the same time controlling which beliefs are taught, and where.
“Let’s say they do teach the regular curriculum in the mornings. What are they teaching in the afternoon? It might be completely inconsistent,” Ms. Weinrib said.
Under the provincial curriculum, students study the “big bang” theory of the origin of the universe in grade nine, and the theory of evolution in grades 11 and 12. Mr. Tory has said one of three conditions for funding is that faith- based schools teach the provincial curriculum.
The Ontario Ministry of Education currently has no policy on how to deal with a school whose teachings of religious dogma directly contradict parts of the provincial curriculum, said ministry spokeswoman Patricia MacNeil.
It’s not a problem in Ontario Catholic schools, which accept evolution and the “big bang,” with God as the force behind these events, said Noel Martin, director of Catholic education for the Ontario Catholic School Trustees Association.
Mohamed Sheikh Ahmed, principal of the Ottawa Islamic School, said he sees no problem in teaching evolution and the “big bang” as scientific theories, while also teaching creation according to Genesis as an article of religious faith
“This is a faith. This is what you believe in. Other people believe in some other things. So there is no problem, there is no confusion here, saying: this is what I believe as your teacher, and this is what the scientific findings are saying,” Mr. Ahmed said. “Darwinism is only a theory…. As a Muslim, I believe in Genesis, but I have no problem teaching evolution as a theory, which is something to discuss. And some people believe in it: scientists, evolutionists believe in it. So there is no problem teaching the curriculum as it is.”
Paul Triemstra, principal of the Ottawa Christian School, said his school treats the origin of life and the universe as open questions:
“God created the world. And how he decided to do that, whether he took six, 24-hour days some eight to 10,000 years ago; or whether he did that over billions of years through all kinds of different processes that scientists have looked at and theorized about, that’s a very good discussion.”
The cost of funding faithbased schools is also of concern, Ms. Weinrib said. Mr. Tory’s $400-million price tag assumes that 80 per cent of the roughly 53,000 students currently enrolled in private, faithbased schools will attend the new public schools. Ms. Weinrib believes that’s a vast underestimation.
“There are all sorts of people in every community who simply can’t afford this private religious education,” she said. (Tuition at the private religious schools can run as high as $35,000). “And if it turns out that it’s going to be available for free, they’re going to shift. I mean that’s so obvious.”
That was the case in Ontario Catholic high schools, which saw their numbers triple in their first 15 years of public funding. Originally, Catholic schools were guaranteed funding for the lower grades under the 1867 BNA Act. In 1985, the funding was extended to the end of high school, and enrolment grew to 200,813 in 2000, from 66,840 in 1985, according to government data.
Mr. Triemstra said public funding for other religious schools will allow for a potential growth in students among families with lower incomes, particularly immigrant families.
The $400-million Conservative promise is also only based on operational funding (at about $9,400 per student) to pay for things such as teachers, textbooks and janitors, according to officials. Faith-based schools would not be eligible for the same capital funding that other Ontario public schools receive, Conservatives say.
But Ms. Weinrib said that once brought into the public sphere, those faith groups would have every constitutional right to demand millions for new schools, which cost between $8 million and $35 million depending on their facilities. If they don’t get them, “you’re going to have a Charter argument that there’s discrimination on the basis of religion,” she says. “They’re going to want more. It’s inevitable.”
However, the most serious consequence of the policy is the potentially fragmenting impact it will have on Ontario society, Ms. Weinrib said. She worries it will undo years of progress Ontario has made in moving toward a more secular, inclusive society. Although Mr. Tory frames his policy as an issue of fairness, she said it is actually a powerful wedge issue designed to appeal to voters along religious lines.
“If we’re going to create an education system, I think the last thing we would to do is this. It really seems like a step backward,” she said.
Mr. Ahmed and Mr. Triemstra disagree.
“I don’t believe a bit of that,” Mr. Ahmed said. “Canada is a country of communities. Having our different communities and keeping our own different cultures never makes us any less Canadian…. The real goal behind the whole thing is giving parents a working alternative for how they want to raise up their kids.”
…this post forwarded by Windsor Humanist, J.McAll, after a September 13, 2007 article by Lee Greenberg & Kate Jaimet in The Ottawa Citizen