Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party has proposed direct funding of faith-based schools in its campaign platform for the upcoming election.
The proposal is one of the least developed in the party’s “Plan for Ontario’s Future.” It stipulates only three preconditions for faith-based schools to enter the public school system: full incorporation of the province’s curriculum, agreement to administer and publicize the results of standardized testing, and an undertaking to “appropriately address teacher credentialing.”
The Conservatives’ leader, John Tory, claims this plan will integrate Ontario’s increasingly diverse student population into the mainstream. His basic appeal is to fairness: all religious groups should be entitled to the public funding that the Roman Catholic community enjoys. Tory stresses that the proposal will not undermine the public system; rather, it will expand it at reasonable cost.
The publicly funded Catholic separate school system was entrenched in 1867 to protect the Catholic community from the Protestant majority that Confederation established in Ontario. The historical purpose has disappeared now that religion no longer organizes social life, including education. Moreover, the Charter now mandates a religiously neutral public school system.
The Supreme Court of Canada has rejected the claim that funding the Catholic separate schools amounts to a breach of equality rights under the Charter. Therefore, the PC proposal is not constitutionally mandated. While the United Nations Human Rights Committee considers the current funding arrangement a breach of equality under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, that opinion is not enforceable.
Recent polling shows a strong preference for doing away with the separate Catholic school system in Ontario, as Newfoundland and Quebec have done. There seems to be no political mileage in promoting this option, however. Political advantage lies elsewhere, in the communities where religion and conservative social values influence voter preferences.
Proponents and opponents of the new proposal both appeal to the need to accommodate diversity and prepare children for life in a challenging multicultural society. They part company on the question of whether these principles are served by a public school system as unified as our Constitution allows or by a more diversified model based on religious faith as proposed.
Proponents label the current system as divisive. They are confident that funded, regulated faith-based schools will forward multiculturalism by maintaining the distinctiveness of a variety of religious traditions while affirming core Canadian values at the same time. They also claim that students of all faiths will form bonds within the public school system.
They consider the estimate of $400 million adequate to cover the 53,000 students now in about 100 private religious schools, although they don’t expect all would opt in.
Opponents, as one might expect, regard mixed, religiously neutral public education as the key to healthy interaction in our diverse society. They predict a weakened and impoverished public education system that divides students along religious lines.
Some prominent members of the communities that would benefit by the funding worry that the proposed arrangements will exacerbate insularity and disadvantage in addition to strengthening the hand of self-appointed clerics and community leaders at the expense of a wider range of voices. In extreme cases, we might see teaching of exclusivity and superiority, intolerance, and hatred.
Critics predict that the costs will be much higher than estimated. They assume that the number of students seeking tax-paid, faith-based education will far exceed the numbers now in private schools.
The debate to date has not explored other concerns, such as the segregation of male and female students in the classroom and at social events, the type of education and career preparation offered to female students, the treatment of sexual minorities, approaches to sex education and health issues, and access to services for students who are ill or disabled.
Difficult decisions will have to be made: what is a faith? What is a faith-based school? What to do when the religious curriculum is inconsistent with the mandated Ontario curriculum? How to oversee and enforce the pre-conditions for funding over time? How to deal with schools that are rejected or object to some of the standards?
We can expect debate and litigation on these and many other issues, some raising constitutional claims.
Rather than offering sufficient detail to produce a full debate, Tory has indicated his intention to appoint former premier Bill Davis to review options and make recommendations - if the Conservatives are successful at the polls.
As this debate matures, we should keep in mind that - in contrast to our most recent adventure in this context, the ill-fated tax credit for private religious education - the proposed restructuring of the public school system would be very difficult if not impossible to dismantle.
Lorraine E. Weinrib is a professor at the Faculty of Law, University of Toronto.