Hot! It’s time to unify our schools

Intelligencer.ca – news/letters
May 11, 2012.   Janice Lynch

I was about five years old when I began playing with the other kids on my street. One day I was playing with a neighbourhood girl about my age and she asked me where I went to school. I answered, “St. Michael’s.” Her eyes widened and she shouted, “You’re a Catholic girl!”.

I had never heard the word “Catholic” in my life and was genuinely confused. I asked my parents what it meant and they, too, looked stunned. They told me that there are two types of schools: Catholic schools and public schools, which explained why the girl from across the street knew I was a Catholic before I did.

Following that episode I couldn’t help but see the neighbourhood social scene through a slightly altered lens. On the surface we were a happy group of kids who played together and got along just fine. Yet, some of us knew that there was some type of difference between us. It was impossible to know whether the difference was important and I didn’t pretend to know what it meant. But it obviously meant something, since it determined what school each of us went to.

Years later I learned that our separate school system is a product of the political compromise on which our country was founded — namely, the Constitution. Looking back, it seems sensible that the Fathers of Confederation sought to protect the Catholic and Protestant sects from dominating each other by constitutionally guaranteeing an environment in which they could co-exist in peace. But in light of tremendous societal change since 1867, as well as the subsequent enshrinement of equality protections in the Charter, it is reasonable to ask whether this arrangement still makes sense today.

There’s no getting around the fact that this is a highly divisive subject and has proven to be politically radioactive. However, the fact that it is costing Ontario taxpayers millions of dollars every year to maintain two school systems instead of one makes it a subject worthy of discussion.

The last time this issue created a real stir was in the provincial election in 2007, when John Tory, then Progressive Conservative leader, announced that his government would extend public funding to non- Catholic religious education. John Tory’s idea that the government should go further in mixing religion and public education didn’t sit well with most voters and Tory’s Tories lost the election badly.

It was good that Ontarians rejected Mr. Tory’s proposal. Introducing funding to different religious groups would be a legal and administrative nightmare. Which other groups, besides Catholics, would be entitled to funding? How large would a religious group need to be to qualify? How many different denominations of Christianity, Judaism or Islam was the government planning to recognize? The Tory proposal would create more problems than it would solve and was the wrong way to address the inherent inequality of the current separate school system.

I did agree with Mr. Tory in one respect, however. There is no doubt that our current system is unfair and needs to be fixed.

In the runup to the 2007 election, the former Liberal Minister of Education, Kathleen Wynne, took issue with Mr. Tory’s proposal. On July 24, 2007, Ms. Wynne was quoted in the Toronto Star as follows:

“It’s a terrible idea. [Ontarians] do not want to see our society divided. They do not want to see kids segregated from one another. We need an inclusive system in this province that allows kids to learn together, be together and understand each other.”

Ms. Wynne was right and should be commended addressing the issue directly and telling it like it is, or more accurately, how it should be. The fact is that the divisions that Ms. Wynne deplored are intrinsic to our school system as it exists today.

I think it’s time we end this division. It no longer makes sense for the government to facilitate the division of children into different schools based on religion. By maintaining separate schools, we perpetuate social and religious division while undermining religious equality and our collective sense of equal citizenship.

There are good economic reasons for changing the system as well. With a unified school system we could cut the bureaucratic costs in half saving millions. Further, we would stop the unfair practice of taxing non-catholics in order to subsidize Catholic education.

Our separate school system is severely anachronistic and is no longer sound policy in the context of an increasingly diverse and pluralistic Ontario. It’s time we unify the school systems in the interests of equality, civic solidarity, cost savings and basic fairness.

Janice Lynch,  Stirling

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