Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Should Ontario get rid of its Catholic schools?

A few weeks ago the government in Halton Region, the county next to the one in which I live, decided to build a new and improved regional headquarters and invited some other public funded bodies in the area which have been looking for new spaces as well to join in to save costs -- on the rational that a super head office would save taxpayers money as well as give public servants the space and legroom they so badly needed.

The Halton Police and the Halton Public School Board said yes. The Halton Catholic Board -- after some thought -- said no, saying it had to protect "Catholic values" but really implying they preferred to be scattered in three or four cramped buildings around the county.

Since that decision, the local and community papers -- including the Hamilton Spectator -- have been swamped with e-mails asking whether we even need a Catholic school system anymore, saying it's a 19th century anachronism. They point to at least two UN Human Rights rulings that have said Ontario's system is discriminatory towards non-Catholics. Many, but not most, Catholics have felt to respond that forced integration would be an assault on "their values."

What are Catholic values, anyway? Does it make a difference that kids are sent to Catholic schools, often against their will?

I went to a Catholic high school, and quite frankly it did not make a wit of difference to me. It may have helped to have a group of colleagues that were mostly united by faith, and it was nice to have a chapel (really a converted classroom) where I could just sit down and reflect when things got nasty (which they did when my parents' marriage broke down). But we students and our teachers expressed our common faith in so many different ways that the Vatican would have been more than happy to excommunicate 90% of us if they could send a spy and see what was really going on.

At least half, and as many as 80%, were having sexual relations and even most of the females who weren't were still on birth control. The vast majority never attended church except for the in-school Masses we were compelled to attend. Half the kids came from broken homes and both they and their parents were still receiving Communion -- and perhaps as many as half of the teachers, Catholic teachers, were divorced themselves.

And because the full funding of Catholic schools in Ontario had been implemented the year I started high school (up until then, they were financed only up to Grade 10), the board was stripped of the ability to punish students who did "un-Catholic" things like getting pregnant out of wedlock -- which sanction had until then normally been expulsion. Not only that, but I know that some of the counsellors actually encouraged their "patients" to have sex. How do I know this? Because one of them told me so, straight in my face. She said I didn't have to "wait" if I had a girlfriend and she and I decided we couldn't wait.

In my senior year, the religion class I was in -- which for that year dealt with "lifestyle choices" such as marriage, the single life or a religious vocation -- asked us to write a brief essay about whether it had made a difference we were in a Catholic school. One of the essays was to be picked for the school board's newsletter / propaganda sheet. Most said yes. I dared to say no -- and I actually got an A+ from my teacher for my chutzpah.

So far, two provinces -- Québec and Newfoundland-Labrador -- have obtained Constitutional Amendments regarding education. Québec no longer legally has to provide for the funding of religious schools, having switched to a language based system (French and English), although Catholic and Protestant schools still do operate at public pleasure in Montréal and Québec City, having been "grandfathered."

Newfoundland once had no public system at all, but finally abolished the faith based schools and now has a purely secular system although credit courses specific to each major religion has taken over. Interesting that in the referendum to pass that amendment, residents in mostly Catholic districts supported doing away with religious schools and those in mostly Protestant districts did not. Manitoba may be considering an amendment not unlike the one Québec obtained, if it hasn't already passed yet.

Should Ontario do the same? A few years back, the Conservative government tried rather clumsily to introduce a "voucher" regime through the income tax system that would have funded all private schools, which over time would have resulted in a subsidy of the lesser of 50% of tuition or $3500 per student. The McGuinty Liberals, as soon as they were elected, abolished it saying it drew money away from public and Catholic schools which needed to be fixed.

The Catholic school system, in my opinion, only encourages segregation; and we live in what should be an integrated world. As Christians, we're called to live in the world but not be of it. We can't have it both ways -- pretending to live in a world that doesn't exist. So there are basically two ways one can respect the rights of minorities, including non-Christians.

First, do what Newfoundland did for years -- have faith based schools for all religions, and fund them equally, with elected school boards whose boundaries might emcompass the entire province if a group was small enough. The downside is that students might have to be bused for hours at a time, two hours or more each way -- which is why "The Rock" finally gave up on it.

The second, and which I would support albeit with reluctance, is to abolish the sectarian schools but replace them with a requirement that all students in public high schools must take one credit course each year -- either for the religion they belong to, or a general course on "ethics" if they don't have a religion at all or want to opt out of the religion course.

This will probably not be very popular at first. In fact, I suspect that what will happen, at least in the early stages, is that in the lunchrooms Catholics will be in one corner, Muslims in another, evangelical Protestants in a third and so forth -- just as kids of various ethnicities prefer to hang out with "their own kind." Moreover, I think a lot of parents will just pull their kids out of the schools and into private institutions or home schooling.

In the long run, however, I think students will appreciate the benefits of working in one system, because it will encourage them to improve it and raise the bar for academic standards. The separated system forces colleges and universities to compare apples to oranges when selecting students for admission. An integrated system would let them compare apples to apples. It's time to progress and realize this is 2006, not 1867. Other provinces have realized the "Confederation Bargain" can be altered to meet current circumstances.

Ontario should at least consider doing the same -- or else ensuring those "outside" the funded streams get the same education as those who are "in."

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