It’s time to merge Ontario’s two school systems ~ Opinion

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Authors – 
Samuel E. Trosow, Associate Professor, University of Western Ontario, Faculty of Law and Faculty of Information & Media Studies, Western University
Bill Irwin, Assistant Professor, Huron University College, Faculty of Arts and Social Science, Department of Management and Organizational Studies, Western University

There is a pressing need to consolidate Ontario’s separate and public school systems.

Long ignored by most politicians, this controversial idea deserves a fresh and serious policy discussion — especially now, with the new Ontario government contemplating cuts to the education system. School consolidation will result in significant and recurring cost savings, and will do so in an equitable manner that does not threaten existing services or facilities.

Consolidation of school systems will save money by eliminating service duplication, and it will eradicate enrolment competition between the two systems.

And contrary to a widely held perception, denominational schools are not necessarily protected by Canada’s Constitution, as previously demonstrated in the provinces of Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Québec.

Huge potential cost savings

2012 discussion paper from the Federation of Urban Neighbourhoods estimates annual savings of between $1.269 and $1.594 billion by merging the systems.

The organization, a province-wide coalition of community and neighbourhood associations, looked at several factors, including savings from grants for administration, capital costs, reducing under-utilization and transportation costs.

In the Canadian Secular Alliance’s 2015 pre-budget submission to Ontario’s Ministry of Finance, the organization stated that while “the exact savings realized depend on what the amalgamated school system that would replace the status quo would look like, the savings under any reasonable set of assumptions amount to hundreds of millions of dollars per year.”

The alliance also pointed to the duplication costs arising from “operating schools well below enrolment capacity and otherwise unnecessary student transportation distances.”

While the estimates of cost savings may vary depending on how the consolidation would be implemented, a fiscal analysis needs to be undertaken in a non-partisan and verifiable manner.

Eliminating competition for students

There is currently student enrolment competition between the separate and public systems as separate school boards try to woo non-Catholic kids. This competition is unhealthy, inconsistent with the purposes for which denominational schools were first established and a waste of school system resources.

John Hendry, a trustee with the Waterloo Region District School Board, argues that attempts to enrol non-Catholic students show that the separate school system is facing significant difficulty surviving as a “faith-based education system solely with Catholic students.”

Catholic schools in Ontario are trying to attract students who aren’t Catholic for funding purposes. (Shutterstock)

These same concerns were discussed in a 2016 Globe and Mail report showing that Ontario separate school boards are increasingly enrolling non-Catholic children and “siphoning students from the public stream as the two systems vie for provincial funding.”

Single-school, rural and inner-city communities face particular risk for school closures given Ontario’s current educational funding formula. It has become purely a numbers game when it comes to the continuance and future of many of these schools.

It’s a real challenge to keep a school up and running, and by extension keep a community viable, when students in that community are channelled into competing school systems. While a community or neighbourhood may be able to keep its local school open if all children residing there attend that school, splitting the potential student body into parallel school systems makes the risk for closure of the local school much greater.

Ontario should follow Québec, NL’s lead

As mentioned, it’s often argued that consolidation is not permitted because the rights of separate schools to maintain their status are constitutionally protected. While Section 93 of the 1867 Constitution provides for the continuation of the separate schools’ denominational rights, it could be easily amended.

The 1982 Constitution Act, which included the Charter of Rights, updated the amendment procedure for the 1867 Constitution. Section 43 provides that where a provision applies to one or more, but not all, of the provinces, it can be amended by resolution of the provincial assembly and the federal Parliament. Québec and Newfoundland have already invoked this clause, and Ontario can do the same.

In an opinion piece for CBC News, Richard Moon, a University of Windsor law professor, writes that Section 93 was drafted at a time when the dominant public or common school system in Ontario had a clear Protestant ethos. The protection for denominational rights ensured that members of the minority Roman Catholic community would not be pressured to send their children to the Protestant schools.

But Moon points out that the “character of the public school system in Ontario has changed dramatically since 1867, a change that has been accelerated by the Charter of Rights in 1982.”

Moon’s analysis of these changing conditions is shared by Queens University law professor Bruce Pardy, who walked through the procedures needed to amend the Constitution to permit consolidation.

Unlike the more complex process for amending other constitutional provisions, consolidation would only require the passage of a resolution by the Ontario legislature and the federal Parliament. Pardy concludes:

Any Ontario politician who claims that there is a Constitutional guarantee to Catholic schools that binds the government is being disingenuous. The only thing that sits in the way of fixing a discriminatory and unfair constitutional anachronism is the reluctance of Ontario political parties to do so.
Bruce Pardy, Queens University law professor 

The time is now

Before imposing harmful cuts such as the recent suspension of the building repair fund and closing more schools, the Ontario government should initiate a discussion about how consolidation could proceed.

An underlying goal of consolidation should be to minimize the disruption to existing programs and services. While discussions would likely centre on estimating cost savings, the social costs of maintaining separate systems should also be considered. For example, how would consolidation impact the travel times to schools for students, especially in rural areas?

Hopefully the matter of school consolidation will not become yet another partisan issue. All Ontario parties should cooperate, and all levels of government should be considered in the analysis.

It is no longer viable to dismiss the issue on the grounds of Constitutional entrenchment. It is clear that the law can be easily changed through a simple resolution at Queen’s Park and in the Federal Parliament.

All that’s truly needed is the political will to take on a difficult issue and move forward.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

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14 Comments

    • As only 8% of overall education funding comes from property taxes, the argument that Catholic parents pay for the system is fatuous. As well, every other branch of every other religion pays those same taxes, yet are not entitled to the privilege of their own religion-based school system. The historical 1867 reasons for a Catholic system are no longer relevant. There can be no justification for continuing this privilege.

  1. Brian Dallier on

    Oh boy I’m opening up a csn of worms here!
    A school is a school.
    Private or public, the level of education should be the same.
    I went to a regular public school and had a good education.
    If people still want a private school, they should pay for it out of their own pockets.
    There is no need to have separate schools these days, where one gets more funding than the other.
    In the end, in small communities, the private school and the public schools end up going to the same High School before going to colleges. So in conclusion what is the purpose of even having separate schools?
    With all this talk of needless spending these days I think that it’s time that people all got together and stop having separate school boards.

  2. I think this is a wonderful idea. Could never understand why we have the 2 systems anyway. I mean if 2 kids of different religions can play together why can’t they be educated together? Would this not be the start of showing equality amongst people with different beliefs?

  3. I totally agree. It is also time to stop funding religious instruction with the public purse. If we fund the Catholic system, why are we not funding other religions? One public, secular system.

  4. It is a great time to review the future direction of education in Ontario. It makes financial sense to amalgamate the two systems. Dividing children during their formative years is not enhancing the larger community over time. Let’s hope that the legislature can press for a “common-sense” approach for our society.

  5. Martha Watson on

    At present, there is more support in the separate school system for students with special needs. In the case of amalgamation, I would hope every school in every board would have that support!

  6. Charles Wilson on

    “Consolidation of school systems will save money by eliminating service duplication, and it will eradicate enrolment competition between the two systems.”

    It is difficult to think of a single example in the public educational sector where bureaucratic consolidation resulted in savings. I can however think of the GTA where municipal amalgamation not only created more service duplication it built bureaucratic institutions ungoverned and ungovernable which costs have sky rocketed since the dread deed was done by a local mattress salesman.

    But that canard, so scantily documented in the premise is too easy to lay to rest. It’s the other part of this sentence that get attention: the eradication of competition for students by the two competing board, the creation of public monopoly of education and the erosion of parental and student choice.

    The sub-rosa script is even worse: catholics shouldn’t be poaching protestant or other or non denominational students.

    Full disclosure: I have never attended any school in any province of Canada or either denomination and nor, because of an early altercation with the local school board on behalf of a client of mine, did any of my four Canadian born and raised now adult children.

    This nearly half a century ago altercation bears directly on this topic, as it had been determined the client; a 17-year old of football-only talent was to be denied the ability to do the one thing he was good at because his parents had moved homes switching him from one school in the district to another.

    The board argued, stacking teams and the integrity of the system was more important than the individual student and we disagreed.

    Now here it comes again the notion that a monopoly on education, ostensibly to cheese pare the budget, is a solid idea and that competition for students between separate and public boards is a bad idea.

    May I be clear: school is about the only time students, people ever get to compete solely on merit. Anything that detracts from that merit, anything that compromises that natural human competition between the young is bad for all of us. Anybody in any doubt on this subject chat with a survivor from a state monopoly education anywhere in the world that has one. Or just read history.

    May I be even clearer: entrusting the state with the education of the young is already showing signs of being failed experiment of the Nanny State. I won’t belabor the obvious historical abuses —- actually yes I will – the complete absence of inconvenient 13,000 years of Indian history from the curriculae of either school system — the use of education not to teach but to indoctrinate — the unchecked power of system whose local boards have surrendered to provinces which in turn have surrendered to oligarchic unions.

    States want, need docile taxpayers hard worker who comply with their agenda no matter how addled it is, who pay their taxes fight their mad wars of aggression in places like Afghanistan and don’t question too deeply, well anything. Mr. Blair wrote about it in his opus “1984”. The state before the Reformation in Europe practiced it with the active cooperation of the religious community.

    In case anybody who is still reading this small polemic might think I am making the case for a Roman Catholic system I am not. In fact I abhor almost everything the church in Rome stands for except its proclivity for the dialectic and, in my native country, its ability as a spurned minority to argue and teach their students to argue with a persuasiveness only matched by my Jewish friends, another spurned-at-your-own-risk minority.

    I went to schools and universities run by Jesuits and learned much of humanism and the law, a little about science and a few languages including this one. I also went to protestant schools where humanism was ignored or maligned if it dared to appear except on Sundays between 10 and 11 am in chapel and then only under a bodyguard of cant so thick even a small child sensed unease with the subject. But the protestants did teach me logic and mathematics, two ancient languages and patience. This competition for my soul or my brain and sometimes, this being all male school, for my body created in the child an inquisitiveness which took me through five continents and via newspapers into many discussions and assays. Governments did in fairness try to make use of me but I really peaked as a civil servant aged 19 seeking fishing spots on the hustings for failed PM candidate Diefenbaker. This piscatorial ability got me the job of driving a Judge who had lost his licence. It was called articling and then on into courtrooms and boardrooms.

    Students need to be challenged. Their school teacher and their masters need to be challenged. Anything that reeks of pedagogical monopoly, anything that detracts from a competitive world which is what education must be is going to result in a lack of engagement, dropping out of school. Failure to finish. In this province we have elected a leader, Mr. Ford who dropped out of technical college — is it even possible?— and in Alberta we are about to elect another who dropped out of handpicked US campus. Again very difficult to do. Promises make promises well sort of broken. So is dropping out the new norm for governments and universities. Is the strident pouty Dr Peterson right and the maw of the beast more important that the PC students it ingests and regurgitates?

    Should we presume that school is so unimportant that university is just a trade school and that thought is for the elite who ever they are and the rest of us should just muddle along?

    Competition is the essence of learning. Making your brain work faster better more efficiently depends entirely on you learning at a very early age not only how to do it but instilling the need to do it. All the time. Constantly.

    So that’s the empirical counter argument. Luckily it is all unnecessary as amending the constitution is not, as the authors suggest, easy. In fact as those of us who watched the imposition of the “notwithstanding” clause the last time we tried it, is almost impossible and very much to be avoided.

    Nothing contained in this comment is designed to detract from the sincerity of either of the two no doubt dedicated domine one with a solid background in American Law — still not an absolute oxymoron— and copyright—- and the other whose publicly avowed enthusiasm for Dewey pragmatism to enable systems to run efficiently comes at a human cost Dr Dewey himself acknowledged in his later work.

    • Very impressive, Mr. Wilson, and quite convincing. There are a few other facts, which tend to support your argument. The French-French schools (where French is the only language allowed on school grounds) are firmly the domain of the Roman Catholic Board. This is truly superior to French Immersion for assimilating the language (and the culture through their peers). The Christian Schools, to my knowledge, are self-sufficient; and will not consolidate in any event. Of course, the Jewish males obtain their religious instruction outside the school system.
      .
      So actually, if French-French instruction can be integrated gradually into a consolidated system; and if religion can become an actual subject; perhaps even the Christian Schools can be convinced to join.
      .
      Fortunately, Nova Scotia wants all the teachers who are released: And we need all the French-speaking teachers who we can import from Quebec.
      .
      Three of my children are fluently bilingual; and for all three, it is a condition of their employment. As Ontario is the most multicultural of the provinces, what a boon to graduate so many students who are fluent in both official languages.

  7. IMHO it was wrong to create a publicly funded separate system for Catholics, and it is even more wrong in today’s multicultural society. Will this current government have the will to tackle this political bombshell?

    • Charles Wilson on

      The last politician to attempt to tackle this “bombshell” was John Tory currently serving as mayor of the city of Toronto for his sins.

      I once attended a dinner and found myself seated at a table with Premier Dalton McGinty on one side and Mayor Hazel McCallion on the other The dinner, part of a rubber chicken rota, was tedious enough that the Premier dozed off during a speech by an Indo Canadian calling for what you are calling for. The premier woke from his reverie enough to start clapping as the turgid prose ground to a close.
      “Kick him,” instructed the then Mayor of Mississauga to my left. The invitation to hack at the Premier was irresistible and I obeyed the edict. Dalton came fully awake and stop clapping quickly.

  8. Brian Tapley on

    We should have one excellent and publicly funded school system.
    We should never have funded the Catholic separate system. It was an illogical decision at best.

    Of course any religion can have any education system they like as long as two conditions are met. (1) they meet the education standards used for that area of our country and (2) they fund it entirely themselves with no tax money added.
    Their taxes would still fund the public system however.

    It is an expense we never needed, and can ill afford to continue so this change could not come quickly enough.

  9. There was a time when many Ontario cities had both a Catholic hospital and a general/civic hospital. Most of these have now merged – it should not be difficult for schools to do the same.

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