Hot! The cost of Ontario’s religious discrimination

NationalPost.com –
February 19, 2011.  By Mike Evans

Nothing is more wasteful than having to pay twice for the same service. Yet this is precisely how the Ontario government has chosen to organize its public education system. Funding both Catholic and secular public school systems is a flagrant waste of public money. According to the One School System Network, a coalition of teachers, secularist groups, religious groups and civil rights organizations, up to $500-million is spent each year on duplication costs alone. These are costs that are incurred merely from having to maintain two systems. They are mainly bureaucratic and administrative in nature, but also include costs associated with student supervisors, buses, bus drivers, caretakers and a wide range of similar expenditures.

On February 1, Ontario’s Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs held its pre-budget consultations. In the weeks leading up to the event, the government appropriately requested that Ontarians contribute written submissions on budgetary issues that are important to them. For those who oppose the public funding of Catholic schools, this was an excellent opportunity to highlight some of the fiscal pitfalls associated with this discriminatory practice.

Why these duplication costs? Because the Ontario government has taken it upon itself to ensure that one particular religious denomination continues to enjoy rights that are unavailable to the rest of the population. Wasting public money so that children of Catholic families (not “Catholic children”) can be bused on half-empty buses to half-empty schools is indefensible. While Catholics do indeed enjoy a constitutional privilege to publicly funded denominational schools, it has been shown by Newfoundland and Quebec that the constitution can be changed to reflect current societal values – those of fairness and equality.  This can be accomplished through a simple bilateral constitutional amendment as few as twelve words in length and would only require the agreement of the province in question and the federal government.

The Ontario government must also bear some responsibility for the promulgation of the myth — and it is a myth — that only Catholics pay for Catholic schools. This is manifestly false. All public schools, whether secular or Catholic, draw their funds from the same financial pot and are funded on a per-student basis. If the public were more aware of this fact, there is no doubt that there would be renewed opposition to this archaic and divisive system.

So, what is the solution? In the past it has been suggested that the system could be made to be more equitable by extending funding to all faiths. Leaving aside the practical impossibility of accommodating all religious denominations and their obscure sects, from a budgetary standpoint this would be a veritable nightmare. The only fair, equitable and fiscally responsible solution is to end funding to Catholic schools.

But first things first. Before any substantive changes can be expected, this issue must be reopened for public debate – and not just in official forums like the Ontario Legislature, although this is of prime importance. We also need debates underway in less formal settings such as university debate clubs, educational NGOs and, of course, op-ed sections of newspapers.

According to a poll conducted by Angus Reid in 2009, the majority of Canadians are opposed to the public funding of religious schools. Specifically, 51% oppose funding Christian schools, 68% oppose funding Jewish schools and 75% oppose funding Islamic schools. What will happen to these numbers as the myths are dispelled and the facts emerge in the public consciousness? It would be surprising if Ontarians, the majority of whom are non-Catholic, rallied in support of the prejudiced status quo.

With fairness and equality on its side, opposing the public funding of Catholic schools is about to become popular. And if this is true, politicians who feel as I do should take this opportunity to show their support for a single publicly funded school system before it becomes mainstream. Those who do will find themselves rewarded at the ballot box.

- Mike Evans is Vice-President, English Canada of the Canadian Secular Alliance

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