Arguments for a one-board school system strong, but falling on deaf ears

Posted on April 24, 2016 in Education Debates – Opinion/Editorial
April 23, 2016.   Editorial/Postmedia

The argument to end public funding for separate Catholic schools in Ontario popped up in Peterborough again last week.

The catalyst was an announcement that 109 public high school teachers were told they won’t have jobs come September due to falling enrolment.

Their union, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, immediately raised the call for a single school board, a long-standing OSSTF position.

The OSSTF proposal wouldn’t end publicly funded Catholic education. All existing school boards – public, Catholic and French language – would be merged. Combined boards could still oversee a Catholic education component.

That’s the watered-down version of a single, entirely non-religious school system others would like to see. The Green Party took that position during the 2014 provincial election. The three main parties were content with the status quo.

Following the election, Premier Kathleen Wynne confirmed there would be no change. The Ontario education system is first-rate, she said, and there is no reason to disrupt it.

Fear of disruption is the main argument for keeping multiple school boards, and the only one that carries any real weight. Even Wynne has said that if Ontario were starting from scratch its education system would look very different.

From a statutory perspective the big obstacle is that the Constitution guarantees Ontario Catholics their own schools. However, Newfoundland managed to push through a constitutional amendment to get rid of its Catholic system. It is doable.

Opposition here would likely be more vehement but could be overcome, particularly if all three major parties would support unification.

The arguments for a one-board system are strong.

The Green Party estimated it would save at least $1.2 million annually in administration, busing and building maintenance. The Catholic system is increasingly out of step with changing social realities, particularly recognition of gay and other gender rights and, to a lesser degree, sex education in schools.

Catholicism is less dominant than it once was. Immigration continues to increase the non-Christian population and funding only one type of religious education is harder to justify. And in the 2011 census, nearly 25 per cent of Ontario residents said they have no religious affiliation.

Falling enrolment and shuttering of schools is a major concern for school boards, including in Peterborough. Multiple school systems compound those problems. Over the past 20 years the local public board has closed several schools and is running others with hundreds of unused spaces, while the Catholic and French boards have built or are building new schools.

Full schools allow a greater variety of courses and stronger extracurricular programs, which translates to better education.

Ending public funding for religious schools would be the best and fairest policy. A single school system that includes the option of Catholic instruction would be a good first step.

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