John Tory, the Leader of the Opposition in Ontario, has revived a bad idea from the past and has figured out a way to make it worse.
Ontario has a well-established Catholic school system that is constitutionally entrenched. In an important 1980's decision, the Supreme Court of Canada described it as part of the deal that created Canada by addressing the concerns of Catholic minorities in Ontario that they would be overrun in an Orange Anglican Ontario. At the time this made sense given the strong sectarian feelings that governed elections, the grnating of public offices and conduct of business generally, throughout British North America. However, as Ontario has become more diverse and less sectarian the original rationale for such a division has vanished but pressure to create new faith based schools has increased from the sectarian fragments that still exist. In the same decision though, the Supreme Court of Canada held that the special arrangement for Catholics was unique and because of that it was not discriminatory for Ontario to refuse to fund other secatrian school systems.
Now John Tory proposes, with the help of Bill Davis (who had the good sense not to do it while he was in power) to extend public funding to a wide range of faith based schools. This has to be one of the more stupid public policy ideas to rear its ugly head in years. Ontario is now a non-sectarian society where there is no de facto religious test to holding public office and, even more important, anyone is free to bring their religious vlaues to the public square and to the legislature as a part of the debate about public policy. The reason people want sectarian schools today is not to protect against systematic exlcusion from a faith based government but to reverse the desegregation of Ontario and to encourage sectarian conduct and thought at the level it can be best encouraged for life -- in the minds of children.
The difficulty that will come up as soon as this program is introduced to support schools for various moderate mainstream groups is that it will quickly followed for requests for matching funds for more radical groups who may be proposing approaches to curriculum development that may not sit well with anyone who wants to see (1) good education delivered and (2) social harmony promoted. For example, what of the Christian school that will deliver the Provincial curriculum but insists on additional "Darwin is a Devil" classes? Or the madras that proposes to deliver a lip service version of the official curriculum as a sorry adjunct to a full time diet of the "Koran (as I interpret it) Is the Literal Truth" curriculum? Once the funding is offered outside the context of the constitutionally entrenched Catholic system the Charter makes it very tricky trying to regulate to whom such funding is delivered.
But what of the jealousy that the Catholic system engenders? Newfoundland into the 1980's and 1990's was a far more sectarian society than Ontario has been in living memory. It had deeply entrenched publicly funded religious schools systems -- which were growing in numbers -- and an absence of a non-sectarian public school system at all. Clyde Wells decided to bring an end to it and conducted a campaign to do so which included a referendum and two constitutional amendments which brought an end to the sectarian system. While at the time there was a debate about whether it was really a renunciation of sectarianism or the final conquest by the mainstream protestant school boards, in a few years the debate ended and Newfoundland now has a modern school arrangement.
There are times that I miss the old traditions of the religious schools but in the end Newfoundland and its children -- in the modern context -- are infintely better off for the end of tha system. It served a valuable function in its day: it delivered education in a peaceful way in a sectarian world, it avoided leaving poor catholics out and over time it eased friction in terribly divided communities. That being said, those were not the driving public issues of the 1980's as opposed to the 1880's and the time had come to say 'thank you for a job well done and farewell.'
Ontario should do the same (oh yes, and save $300,000,000 or more a year by doing so).