Separate School Funding

19 May

If I wanted to change the law governing school funding in Ontario, the first thing I would do is find out when Dalton McGuinty does his gardening.

The Premier occasionally must pick vegetables, mow the lawn and rake leaves, no?

Or maybe he’s otherwise occupied with the endless issues that occupy the leader of Ontario.

On September 11, 2005, for example, there was no time for mucking about in the yard.

That day, after months of passionate debate over the proposed introduction of sharia law in Ontario, the Premier announced the province’s decision.

McGuinty not only ruled out the use of sharia – or Islamic law – in arbitrating family-law disputes in Ontario, but also proclaimed an end to all religious arbitration in this province.

For 14 years, arbitrations conducted by Jewish and Christian religious courts – over subjects such as divorces and financial disagreements – were legally binding in Ontario. The Premier’s decision put an end to that arrangement.

Some said the government violated that most basic rule of public policy: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. These courts had operated for years without complaint. Others said it was a bold decision on the Premier’s part, a strong defense of the separation of church (or mosque, or synagogue) and state.

One thing about the decision is certain: It was internally consistent. It’s hard to justify denying religious arbitration to one group while maintaining it for others.

But that consistency threw into sharp relief the discrepancies of another policy – one that’s had a practical effect on the lives of more Ontarians over a much longer period of time: The public funding of Roman Catholic primary and secondary education to the exclusion of all other religions and cultures.

While Ontario parents can send their children to Catholic schools that are fully funded by the government, parents who send their kids to equivalent schools of other denominations and religions must spend thousands of dollars a year out of their own pockets.

Of course, the special status of Ontario’s Catholic schools is a result of nothing less than the creation of our country, forged in compromise that included a guarantee of religious education for the Catholic minority in Upper Canada and the Protestant one in Lower Canada.

Some argue the spirit of that 19th century constitutional compromise was about safeguarding minority – not simply Catholic – rights. Others say it is an anachronism and that no group should still get public funds for religious education. But neither argument has had much success in changing the status quo on education funding, although in an election year, the issue is once again bubbling up at Queen’s Park.

A decade ago, Arieh Waldman, a Torontonian whose kids were Jewish day school students, took the issue all the way to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. In its non-binding 1999 decision, the UN committee ruled that while Ontario wasn’t obliged to fund religious schools at all, it couldn’t pick and choose among religions.

A few years later, the Conservative government introduced the Equity in Education Act, which gave tax breaks to parents of private-school students.

Those tax breaks didn’t last long. Because they were available to parents of any private-school students – not simply religious schools – it was politically easy, and maybe partially accurate, for opponents to paint them as tax breaks for the rich.

When McGuinty’s Liberals took power in 2003, one of their first acts was to kill the Equity in Education Act. Since then, they have shown no inclination to propose an alternative to the status quo.

Which brings us back to Dalton McGuinty’s gardening habits.

Throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s, activists pressed the Ontario government to extend full funding of Catholic education beyond grade ten. Premier Bill Davis refused until 1984, shortly before his retirement, when he unexpectedly reversed course on the issue.

Years later, Davis explained his sudden turnaround as “a matter of conscience” He said his mind changed when a group of Brampton Catholic students approached him as he worked on his front lawn. He couldn’t give them a good-conscience explanation why they had to pay tuition in their late high school years, while public-school students did not.

So here’s what I would do if I wanted to get a new hearing from the government on this issue:

a) Find out when Dalton McGuinty does his gardening.

b) Send off my kids for a friendly chat.

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