Is it time for Ontario to end Catholic school funding?

Posted on March 18, 2021 in Education Debates

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Star Columnists

There must be an election coming soon in Ontario because political parties are suddenly inviting people to suggest “good ideas” for their campaign platforms.

“We need your feedback as we develop our plan,” Premier Doug Ford’sConservatives told party members in a recent fundraising email, encouraging them to say what “you would like to see” in the party’s platform for the June 2, 2022 election.

“We’re in the market for good ideas,” leader Steven Del Duca’s Liberals are telling their members right now on their website, which they say is “the first step to develop our 2022 platform.”

At the same time, Andrea Horwath’s NDP is also hustling for fresh ideas to put in its policy platforms.

Predictably, all are focusing on long-term care, post-pandemic economic recovery, climate change, education, affordable housing and other top-of-mind issues.

Just as predictably, they likely will ignore — or lack the political courage to even consider — any good ideas to end public funding of Ontario’s Catholic schools.

That could be a huge mistake because such a move would save taxpayers an estimated $1.6 billion a year, a staggering sum when you realize Ford’s Conservative government will table a budget on March 24 that is expected to feature the biggest provincial deficit in history.

And school boards across Ontario are facing huge financial crunches, with dropping enrolment often resulting in half-empty schools in towns with separate public and Catholic school systems. Creating a single public system would also mean thousands of students could attend schools closer to home and put a permanent end to calls for public funding for schools operated by Jewish, Muslim and Christian fundamentalists groups.

Importantly for politicians, a call for an end to public funding of Catholic schools would excite voters and be a possible winner on election day for the party that pushes the idea.

That’s especially relevant for the Liberals and NDP, both of whom these days are promoting seemingly indistinctiveviews on major topics and desperately need a defining policy — a “wedge” issue — to truly differentiate themselves in the eyes of voters.

For these two parties, not only does calling for a single, publicly funded secular school system make sense financially and from a fairness standpoint, it could be a huge vote-getter, with polls consistently showing over the past two decades that well over 50 per cent of those surveyed oppose funding Catholic schools.

The issue dates back to Confederation in 1867 when the policy was first implemented. Conservative premier Bill Davis extended full funding to Catholic schools in 1985. But the move is cited as a key reason the Tories were reduced to a minority government in the 1985 election and were trounced in the 1986 election, finishing a distant third.

In 2007, then Conservative leader John Tory promised public funding for other “faith-based schools,” arguing it was a matter of “fairness.” It was a hugely unpopular promise, resulting in the Conservatives losing badly and Tory failing to win a seat himself.

Today, only the Green Party supports the idea. “This will address fairness and human rights concerns, end duplication, and strengthen the classroom experience for students and teachers by streamlining the delivery of services and reinvesting that money where it counts — in the classroom,” party education critic and Parry Sound-Muskoka candidate Matt Richter said this week in an email.

The Liberals and NDP seem to be running scared, fearful of losing support from Catholic voters. But leaders in Quebec and Newfoundland suffered no political damage in the 1990s when they acted to end Catholic school funding. Indeed, Newfoundland held a referendum in 1997 in which 73 per cent of voters endorsed the move.

A similar outcome likely would happen in Ontario, according to pollster Lorne Bozinoff, who has tracked the issue for years. “If it were ever put to a public referendum, Catholic school funding would lose, fair and square,” the Forum Research president said in a 2015 poll analysis.Are Ontario politicians really looking for “good ideas,” as you say?

If so, ending Catholic school funding may be the big “good idea” whose time is now.

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