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Full public funding of Catholic systems discriminatory, unnecessary

As we enter 2020 in sanguine spirits, best to temper our optimism with some cold, hard pragmatism. There are going to be tough days ahead. After all, Ontario is swimming in debt…over $350 billion, and rising fast. That’s $25,000 per resident. We pay $12 billion a year in interest alone to service this financial albatross.

How may this bleak scenario affect our schools?

Ontario’s current $163 billion budget includes almost $30 billion for elementary and secondary education. The government kicked in $186 million more this year for education than in 2018.

Sounds good at first blush, but many are not happy. Students have staged walkouts, and teachers are currently engaged in work-to-rule and rotating strike action. The standoff between the government and teachers’ unions continues with no solution in sight on substantive issues.

“Further escalations by teachers unions are adversely affecting students in this province,” said Ontario education minister Stephen Lecce. “We’ve made significant moves to date…they’ve made no change at all.”

Teachers’ union president Harvey Bischof countered with “…the Ford government’s policies, if we are not able to reverse them, will continue to create chaos in the education system for years to come. Ontario students deserve better, and that is exactly what we’re fighting for.”

Any way you cut it, $30 billion is a lot of money. It seems counter-intuitive that costs should keep increasing regardless of whether enrollments rise or drop, but that appears to be the universe in which we exist. (In Niagara, the Catholic board’s current numbers have dropped marginally, to 22,000; the Public board experienced a small increase in enrollment, to 37,000.)

The Fraser Institute, a libertarian-conservative research and public policy think tank, claims that Ontario’s spending on education increased by 30% over the past decade, while enrollment dropped 5%. The Institute proclaims most of the money went to teacher salaries, benefits, and pensions, rather than classroom resources.

That’s not a knock against teachers. Having worked in education for over 30 years, I know that managing and motivating a classroom with multiple student ability levels, and offering meaningful lessons and assessment, is not an easy job. But reasonable people acknowledge that teachers generally are well paid and enjoy holiday and retirement benefits which are the envy of the working class.

Premier Doug Ford assures us that he is maintaining his relentless search for ways to take the financial strain off the taxpayer. He claims that the government consulted 72,000 Ontario parents, students, teachers, employers, and organizations in formulating the new approach to education in the province.

Ford wheeled out a plan called “Education that Works for You” last March, which featured a bunch of ostensibly positive developments, like improved broadband internet service for schools. He promised stronger curricula in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and improved skilled trades opportunities.

But there were cuts as well. Like grants for special needs students. And bigger classes (up to 28 students in high school grades) were part of the equation, due to the phasing out of thousands of teaching jobs. Although the Premier tried to allay fears of teachers involuntarily losing their jobs (insisting that a reduction of teaching staff would be achieved via retirements), many school boards issued redundancy notices to teachers.

What does this mean for students? In addition to bloated classes, it will mean fewer course options, as non-core electives are cut. Expect the arts to take a major hit.

If politicians are serious about saving money in education, an obvious solution involves streamlining the system.

Make that systems. In Ontario, we have four: English Public, English Catholic, French Public, French Catholic. School boards (76 of them) are aligned within this framework, with a dozen French, and the remainder pretty much evenly split between Public and Catholic. Also funded are seven children’s treatment centres (including the Niagara Peninsula Children’s Centre) and the Penetanguishene Protestant Separate School Board (I’ll explain that anomaly in a minute).

Two professors at Western University in London, Samuel Trosow and Bill Irwin, completed a comprehensive study on the provincial education system in 2016, and declared that school consolidation would result in significant and recurring cost savings by eliminating service duplication. Similarly, a 2012 discussion paper from the Federation of Urban Neighborhoods (a province-wide coalition of community associations) estimated annual savings approaching $1.5 billion by merging the systems. Their research considered various factors, including savings from grants for administration, capital costs, and reducing under-utilization and transportation costs.

Separate school stalwarts dismiss any talk of savings through amalgamation as a fallacy, arguing that since the funding follows the students, it would cost the same regardless of which system they chose.

Three provinces —Saskatchewan, Ontario and Alberta — fully fund Catholic schools.

Only the provincial Green Party has come out in favour of streamlining the school systems. The Progressive Conservatives, Liberals, and New Democrats have all gone on record as saying that they have no intention of revisiting the school funding issue.

Wonder why? Because the backroom boys have already heard the rhetoric, seen the polls and done the math: dismantling Catholic school funding would be a potentially massive vote loser. And the raison d’etre of every politician is to get elected.

Catholic school supporters view full funding as an absolute entitlement, anchored in the Canadian Constitution of 1867 (also known as the British North America Act) which decreed funding for Catholic schools as a protection of minority rights. In the 1800s, Protestants were in the majority in Upper Canada (Ontario), and the Catholic minority was primarily composed of Irish immigrants and French settlers who were nervous about losing their religious and cultural identity. Interestingly, in the northern reaches of Upper Canada, it was the Protestants who were in the minority—hence funding for the Penetanguishine Protestant Separate School Board.

But times have changed. Catholics are the largest religious denomination in Ontario, at around 30%, according to the 2011 National Household Survey from Statistics Canada. And they are actively recruiting students. A February 2018 report in the Globe and Mail indicated that Catholic school boards in Ontario are increasingly enrolling non-Catholic children and siphoning students from the public stream as the two systems compete for provincial funding. Analysis showed that in 2017, 11,000 non-Catholic students were part of the provincial separate school system. This expansionist behavior is clearly divergent from the intentions of the 1867 BNA edict.

Catholic schools may enroll students from outside the faith, but their practice of hiring teachers is not so magnanimous. If you don’t have a reference letter from your priest, you can pretty much forget about teaching in the separate system.

Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, who teaches law and society at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, commented in a Global News report in June 2018 that this pattern of behavior is not only unfair to teachers, but is unconstitutional under the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“The status quo simply doesn’t meet our standards for international human rights or Canadian constitutional equality,” she said. “Catholics, unique among religious groups, are getting an unequal benefit of the law, having a publicly funded school system and use of that school system to advance their specific religious views.”

In 1999, a United Nations human rights committee reported Ontario’s policy of funding Catholic schools to the exclusion of other religious schools was discriminatory. The UN advised that Ontario could either extend funding to other religious schools, or end funding to Catholic schools. To date, provincial governments have done neither.

Gallagher-Mackay noted that Newfoundland and Quebec 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.

“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.”

Another component of the educational landscape in Ontario are the 900 private schools serving over 100,000 students. None gets government funding. Not a nickel. Most are faith-affiliated. (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Quebec subsidize private schools, but don’t offer full funding.)

Some private schools are for-profit institutions, while others (generally referred to as independent schools) are non-profit with charitable status. All private schools are registered with the Ontario Ministry of Education, and those offering the Ontario Secondary School Diploma (OSSD) are inspected by Ministry officials to ensure the integrity of the diploma credits.

Detractors enjoy propagating the false narrative that the province would go broke if private schools received funding. But the arithmetic is not complex. Each public school student is funded at the 100% rate of over $12,000 per student. Currently, private schools cost the taxpayer zero. If a single private school student got 40% of what is allocated to a public school student, one could reasonably argue that the savings to the taxpayer would be $7,200 (60% of $12,000) as compared to the same student taking a place in a public school at the full funding rate.

The fundamental question is one of fairness. Is it equitable that Catholic schools should receive funding but Jewish and Christian Reformed schools do not? Don’t forget that private school families currently pay taxes to the public system for services they don’t receive.

Here’s a school funding compromise—and this is me just spitballing here. Greater minds would have to massage the details.

Public schools would continue to get 100% funding. This would apply to both Canadian citizens and international students on study permits.

Catholic schools would receive 100% funding in 2020. Thereafter, their funding would be reduced in 5% increments until 2030, where they would stabilize at 50% funding. Catholic schools would be allowed to register only domestic Catholic students with baptismal certificates. No international students would get funding in this system.

Private and independent schools would receive 5% funding in 2020, and annual 5% incremental adjustments until they reached the 50% plateau in 2030. No funding for international students on study permits. As a condition of partial funding, all schools would be required to hire teachers who hold a Bachelor of Education/Ontario Teaching Certificate (currently a two-year, professional program in Ontario universities). Tuition increases must not exceed the rate of inflation. Annual inspections by Ministry of Education officials would be required. And, for the so-called “elite” independent schools (you know who you are), the funding must be allocated to financial aid programs for low and middle-income families.

What would Catholic schools do, faced with diminished funding? They would do what private schools do—what Catholic schools in the USA do. They would charge tuition, fundraise, and create charitable trusts. Life is about choices and priorities, folks.

As Professors Trosow and Irwin succinctly expressed, “All that’s truly needed is the political will to take on a difficult issue and move forward.”

Don Rickers is a retired educator who worked primarily in enrollment management for over three decades. He lives in Fonthill.