Schreiner: Let’s talk about a single publicly funded school system

By Mike Schreiner
As originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen

Ontario needs to address the elephant in the room that is preventing us from modernizing and improving our school system. With schools facing extraordinary financial and social pressures, we need to have an honest conversation about the best way to deliver quality education that brings together all our diverse students.

That conversation must include ending wasteful duplication by merging the best of the Catholic and public school boards.

Separate school boards were protected at Confederation, a time when it made sense to safeguard the Catholic minority. Ontario has changed a great deal in the past 145 years. It makes sense to review our education system now to make sure it best serves our kids and our communities.

Yet the political establishment at Queen’s Park has slammed the door in the face of parents, students and citizens who want a public discussion. This is wrong.

Given our diverse society, it is important to ask whether it is fair for taxpayers to fund one religion at the exclusion of all others.

Public funding of religious schools opens a hornet’s nest of potential problems. The Catholic Church’s opposition to gay-straight alliance clubs (GSAs) to protect students from bullies is one example. I understand and support why the Church does not want government to dictate values. However, religious freedom and sexual freedom are both rights. Respect for sexual diversity and religious diversity is essential. Publicly funded schools must promote both.

The only sensible solution here is separating religion and state, and merging the best of both systems into one system, as done by both Quebec and Newfoundland almost 15 years ago.

It’s neither fair nor equitable for non-Catholics to fund Catholic schools. Although Catholics are taxpayers, it’s a common misperception that the denominational declarations made on municipal tax bills determine school funding. School funding is primarily determined on a per student basis, which means as taxpayers we fund both systems regardless of our own faith.

The most equitable system would respect and celebrate diversity, including religious and sexual freedoms, by moving to a single French and English public system. We have two official languages, but no official religion in Canada.

Studies suggest that merging the Catholic and public systems could save up to $1.5 billion. Staff cuts and school closures are on the table as part of the province’s efforts to tackle Ontario’s record deficit. Why should core services be cut when the government is turning a blind eye to wasteful duplication of having two school systems?

Our current system has obvious inefficiencies, including busing kids past partially full schools that are within walking distance from home.

The most economical and efficient school system would fully utilize buildings and resources close to home for all kids. Local, public school boards can determine the best programming choices that reflect the needs of the community.

The administrative, capital and operating savings should be re-invested in the classroom to prioritize effective teaching. It makes no sense to spend money on duplicative costs when our top priority should be investing in helping each child reach his or her full potential.

Ontario needs bold and courageous leadership to put good policy before entrenched interests that support special funding for one religion at the exclusion of all others. Instead, the premier hides behind the Constitution as if its inequities are inscribed in stone.

Our Constitution is not a barrier to equality. It can be amended to reflect changing social values. Since the patriation of the Constitution in 1982, Canada has enacted 10 constitutional amendments affecting individual provinces. Five amendments pertained to education, four of those dealing with funding of religious schools. Again, both Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador ended denominational funding of schools in 1997.

Bringing our diverse students together into a public school system will enrich learning and make this great province even stronger. Let’s address the elephant in the room and open the door to a public discussion on merging the best of the Catholic and public school boards. Our kids deserve political leadership that doesn’t slam the door in their face.

Mike Schreiner is the leader of the Green Party of Ontario. He can be reached at leader@gpo.ca.