It’s an issue most politicians want to sidestep, but for Hamilton teacher Adrienne Havercroft the question of defunding separate schools in Ontario is about equality.
It could also come with up to $1.6 billion in potential savings annually.
“I really believe in public education,” said Havercroft, who works as a supply teacher with the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board. “It’s not that I have a problem with Catholicism or even with religious education, but I think that the way that Catholic schools are exclusively publicly funded is a problem.”
Havercroft, who was raised Christian and attends church, spent years hunting for a permanent job after graduating in 2009. But with teaching jobs in short-supply in the province, as a non-Catholic she was immediately at a disadvantage as a third of the jobs are with Catholic boards, which require a letter from a priest and proof of being baptized.
“It was brutal,” she told Global News. “There’s a separation of church and state for a good reason and I think it protects the integrity of both institutions.”
Havercroft is part of the grassroots group One Public Education Now (OPEN) and is a plaintiff in an upcoming legal challenge against taxpayer-funded Catholic schools in Ontario.
The group is one of many that oppose the provincial government funding of Catholic school systems, and have worked for years to make it an election issue. Currently only Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta fund both public and Catholic school systems.
The thorny issue has been politically disastrous for candidates in elections past. Toronto mayor John Tory, who was leader of the PCs in the 2007 election, lost badly as the campaign became dominated by discussion of his plan to extend public funding to Ontario’s faith-based schools. The Liberals won a majority and he was defeated in Don Valley West by then Ontario Liberal Education Minister Kathleen Wynne.
Majority agree with one school system
While candidates have avoided the topic ever since, new polling shows public perception around the issue is changing. An Ipsos poll of 841 respondents found 56 per cent agreed with merging the two systems into one, while 26 per cent were in favour of continued funding for Catholic schools. Another 18 per cent would extend funding to all faith-based schools.
The poll also found that just 30 per cent of respondents said the separate school funding issue is a priority for them in this election. Fifty-six per cent of Ontarians agreed they would like to see the issue put to rest.
Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, a professor of law and society at Wilfrid Laurier University, says the issue is not only unfair to teachers but is unconstitutional under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and defunding separate schools is long overdue.
“We’ve known that the current status quo simply doesn’t meet our standards for international human rights or Canadian constitutional equality,” she said. “The Catholics, unique among religious groups, they’re getting an unequal benefit of the law, have the right to have a publicly funded school system and they use that school system to advance specific religious views.”
In 1999, a United Nations human rights report found Ontario’s policy of fully funding Roman Catholic schools and denying funding to other religious schools was discriminatory. In order comply with the ruling Ontario could; extend funding to other religious schools, or end funding to Catholic schools. Almost 20 years later the province has done neither.
What’s the issue?
Gallagher-Mackay said the issue dates back to Confederation when Catholics in Upper Canada were a vulnerable minority and to join Canada they wanted their rights guaranteed against the Protestant majority.
Things have changed since 1867, said Gallagher-Mackay, as Catholics are now the majority in the province. She pointed to other provinces like Newfoundland and Quebec, which stopped funding religious schools 20 years ago after passing constitutional amendments. Making an amendment is not difficult, she said, as the protection of Catholic education in the province is governed by section 43 of the Constitution, which requires only a resolution be passed by both Queen’s Park and Parliament.
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“It’s an anachronism that was part of our constitutional bargain at the beginning, but was specifically put into our constitution in a way that made it possible to change where the political will appeared,” she said. “We should get rid of this because it’s unconstitutional and contrary to the values of equality.”
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, the Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers’ Federation, and other groups like the Civil Rights in Public Education have all now called for the dismantling of the separate school systems.
But Liz Stuart, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, said that Catholic education is “an important pillar” with more than half a million students in Catholic classrooms.
“Within our schools I think you’ll find we have a highly diverse population. Our schools have had open access for many years,” she told Global News, adding that defunding Catholic schools would create an “incredible amount of upheaval.”
How much could Ontario save?
Not only have opponents argued that funding Catholic schools is unequal but also operating four systems — English public, French public, and Catholic boards in both languages — is a waste of money and resources.
A 2012 report by the Federation of Urban Neighbourhoods of Ontario, a volunteer organization of community and neighbourhood groups, looked at the issue of merging schools and found between $1.2 billion and $1.6 billion in potential savings.
Using data from the Ontario Ministry of Education, the report said the savings of moving to a one public, two-language system would come from eliminating governance grants for discontinued Catholic school boards, reducing student transportation grants, and savings on capital costs.
The hundreds of millions in savings could go towards repairs for the province’s crumbling schools. Fix Our Schools, a non-partisan group, has said that publicly funded schools and education must be a priority issue in the June 7 election and has called on candidates this election to fight for money needed to repair deteriorating schools.
Stuart called any talk of savings a “fallacy.”5
“It’s a fallacy to speak about those types of savings … the funding follows the students. Wherever the students go that funding would need to go with them within the publicly funded education system,” she said. “There would be no savings.”
What do the parties say?
Of the four major parties vying in this election, only the Green Party of Ontario led by Mike Schreiner supports defunding separate schools.
“Unifying the school systems is not one of our nine-platform priorities, but it is part of our long-term vision and we believe the conversation needs to start now. Ultimately we want to see more dollars going towards new teachers, assistants and resources for classrooms,” Schreiner said in an email. “We are increasingly concerned that we’re not adequately serving children with special needs, and yet school boards are spending money to compete with each other for students.”
Meanwhile, the Progressive Conservatives, led by Doug Ford, say they’ll make no changes to the existing system if elected on June 7. In a statement from a party spokesperson, the PCs refused to answer whether they’d put the issue to a referendum, despite mounting calls for change.
“The Ontario PCs support the separate school system, and will not be making any changes to the existing school board system,” the statement said.
The NDP also supports the current funding model, saying changes are not up for discussion.
“Andrea Horwath has been clear that this is not under consideration,” the spokesperson said. “The NDP will focus on repairing crumbling schools, lowering class sizes, putting mental health supports in schools and making sure our kids get the high-quality education they all deserve.”
The Liberals and Kathleen Wynne – who’ve had 15 years to make changes to the system since taking office in 2003 – also support the status quo, saying their focus is on making sure Ontarians receive the best education possible, regardless of the schools they attend.
“We’ve always said that our education system is rooted in our past and rooted in the Constitution in the formation of the country,” the spokesperson said. “We will not be reopening that.”
Meanwhile, Havercroft said that where politicians have failed to address the issue OPEN hopes to succeed with their planned legal challenge.
“People feel like the last time someone brought this up it was political suicide,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of political motivation to take on the issue. So we’re hoping to just put pressure on it from the judicial side.”
*With files from Jamie Mauracher and Brian Hill