Sunday, June 10, 2007

Tory's "public religious" schools

In the last few days John Tory, the leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, came up with yet another way to try to "equalize" the fact that denominational schools in the province other than Roman Catholic schools are not publicly funded. But the solution offered may be far less than ideal. Tory is suggesting that "dissentient" schools should have the option of opting into the public system.

Fair enough ... there are two problems, though. From a liberal standpoint, it goes against the principles of integration. A "public religious" school could still theoretically decide which students it wants and which it doesn't. It's true quite a few parents who have decided to exclude themselves from the public system take on second jobs to pay for their kids' tuition, but the fact remains the "Old Guard" schools remain primarily the preserve of the wealthy as well as those kids who are lucky enough to get scholarships whether from the schools themselves or private "benefactors" such as the Fraser Institute.

Add in religious schools to the mix and one could wind up with a system where segregation becomes de facto, not by race but by class. To be fair, the Tory plan would exclude the Old Guard schools such as Upper Canada College, Bishop Strachan, Hillfield-Strathallan, etc. but it does not change the basic fact.

That would, to be blunt, suck. Quite a few friendships I made in high school -- albeit a Catholic high school -- were across the classes. I still count an upper middle class woman from that time as one of my friends, among others. But I also met people from lower circumstances than from my working class background and I value those too.

From a purely conservative view, however, the Tory plan is anything but Blue Toryism (pun unintended). If people wish to withdraw from the public system and have their own religious schools -- or in some cases, home schools or charter schools -- the argument can be made they should forfeit the right to elect public school trustees. They should, in the classic view, also get a refund for the portion of taxes (provincial and local) that fund public schools.

That was the idea behind the defunct Ernie Eves plan for tax credits; which was well-intended but very poorly structured and irresponsible in light of the financial situation of the province.

Admittedly, the status quo may be a 19th century anachronism but it has been upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada as entirely Charter-compliant. In fact, one of the conditions the nine provinces that signed onto the Charter had for doing so was denominational schools as they existed in 1982 would not be wiped out. The Prairie provinces already had their own rules in the Constitution but it was especially a concern for Newfoundland which at the time had only denominational schools and no public ones (ironically, Newfoundland has since done a 180 and abolished religious schools and gone all public).

Most of the other provinces provide at least some funding for religious schools of all stripes; even Québec maintains it for Catholic and Protestant schools in Montréal and Québec City although it now has a language based system in the rest of the province. Yet Ontario remains the only province that has funding for only one religion.

Is there a middle ground? Yes there is, but it's not the model Tory proposes. It's patently silly anyway because those in religious schools (mostly Protestant, although there are also Jewish schools and Islamic madrases) want to be apart from educational society, on purpose.

Instead, I think schools with similar religious tenets across the province should be permitted to have province-wide school boards with elections for trustees to it -- and with adequate public funding. In the electronic age it should not be the logistical problem it once was. The catch would be that standards in the Catholic and non-denominational schools would also get an upgrade -- in terms of funding as well as the curriculum and course materials.

Then there really would be equality in education. Short of that, go the other way as Newfoundland did -- get rid of the religious schools but allow the public schools to have credit courses and religious exercises on the school campuses. That in no way would impair the separation of church and state. After all, they have crosses on the hilltops in Hamilton and Montréal and no one complains about that. Why should people get hot and bothered over a menorah or a crescent moon being displayed alongside a cross at school?

If teaching kids values includes religion then so be it. Why should Catholics have any more rights than the rest of Ontarians? And I say that as a Catholic. But Tory needs to rethink his ideas. If that's going to be the heart of his platform this fall, he might be in for a big surprise -- the province has bigger problems as it is. Especially health care.

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