"Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you tithe mint, and anise, and cummin, and have left the weightier things of the law ; judgment, and mercy, and faith. These things you ought to have done, and not to leave those undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat, and swallow a camel." (Matthew 23:23-24)Even though I was educated by primary and secondary schools controlled through the Catholic Church back in Ireland, I am a believer in unified education, at least when publicly funded. I believe that state funding used to fund the same curriculum in a school with a religion's name on the door should be used to promote diversity in education provision.
This would mean taking the money which currently funds duplicated bureaucracy in the Catholic School Board system and putting it towards under-resourced areas such as trade apprenticeships, guidance counselling, after-school programmes and special needs teaching as well as ensuring that buildings are properly maintained in order to create an environment where pupils feel valued and where any attempt by anti-social elements to degrade the school's facilities are quickly and comprehensively repaired as shown in New York's "broken window" thinking. Catholic schools would not be closed by fiat, but they would have to paddle their own funding canoe, so to speak, and their fees would be deductible with the existing federal tax credit.
This is an issue because the Conservatives pledged to bring faith based schools into a state funding scheme to put them on par with the Catholic schools. The Liberals and NDP favour the status quo. I think they are all wrong but for the reasons below I think the Liberal stance is especially odious - at least in the NDP case you know they were always under the thumb of the unionised Catholic teachers no matter what.
John Tory was a minion of Bill Davis when full funding beyond Constitutional mandate was enacted in Ontario, and has pledged to put Davis in charge of further extension (not withstanding that the Davis gambit was remarkably poor politics at the time). Having made a fairly good appearance on TVO's the Agenda during the week (video available from this page), he completely blew the only question that mattered at a later interview: how would schools handle the question of creationism? He answered using the line on page 1 of every socially conservative Christian who advocates creationism as part of mainstream education - that evolution is just a theory and that there are others. In a single line, Tory managed to destroy any credibility with people wavering towards accepting his line on fairness and equity.
However, rather than sit back and watch his stand crumple, assisted by cartoons in the Toronto Star, the Liberals are not only rowing back on their previous position but telling what I consider bald faced lies cloaked in verbal escape routes while doing so. On Saturday, the Toronto Star published a pro and con on the issue, with the pro side being promoted by Bernie Farber of the Canadian Jewish Congress:
But that changed in December 1998. Dalton McGuinty, who two years earlier was surprisingly elected to lead the Liberal Party of Ontario, wanted to find a way to set himself apart from the usual humdrum politics of staid Ontario. So on Dec. 3 of that year, McGuinty, then the opposition leader, addressed the executive of the Canadian Jewish Congress Ontario Region. Joining him that evening were his legislative colleagues David Caplan, Mike Colle and Monte Kwinter.This would hardly have been shocking, since McGuinty is a product of a Catholic education, his wife teaches at a Catholic school and he has lauded Catholic education to a conference of Catholic teachers - it is essentially identical to Tory's position. But when Tory advocates this former McGuinty position, he calls it segregation. One can only account for it in the light of the tax credit offered by the Eves Tories in the 2003 election and the Liberals desire to oppose at all costs rather than on nuance.
McGuinty spoke of health care, safety in our streets and the blight of poverty. He was asked about the continuing unfairness faced by parents who send their children to Jewish day schools. What, the questioner wanted to know, was McGuinty's position on funding faith-based schools? A hush descended on the meeting room. Said McGuinty: "I have no ideological opposition to ensuring that public funds support Jewish day schools." Yes, he wanted to first reinvigorate public education, but he recognized the inherent "unfairness" in the present funding policy and was prepared to do something about it.
This was no flash in the pan. Over the next three years, McGuinty would continue to herald this position, as noted in an interview he gave to the Ottawa Citizen on June 1, 2001. When asked about whether he would provide funding for faith-based schools, he responded, "If we're looking at equity, yes, somewhere down the road. I would have all kinds of strings attached when it comes to public dollars."
He went on to explain, "The ideal here is equity with the Catholic system. Let's understand what that means. First of all, it means you shall admit any child of any faith. Number two, it means you must hire Ontario-certified teachers. Number three, you must participate in all standardized testing. Number four, you must be subject to all the usual inspections, qualifications and regulations to which all publicly funded schools are subject at the present time. That's what equity means."
Now Health Minister George Smitherman is quoted by the CBC as saying that this position of McGuinty's essentially never existed:
He also rejected Conservative claims that several prominent Liberals, including Premier Dalton McGuinty, had previously supported the idea of providing funding to faith-based schools.He gives the impression that the Liberal Party has never considered this but leaves enough ambiguity in how he says it to allow himself to row back when confronted by the truth - that he was only speaking for his own position rather than his Leader's past commitments. He can hardly have been unaware of them, not least because Farber had been quoted in the Ottawa Citizen earlier in the week and no doubt elsewhere. I have written previously about Mr. Smitherman's rather sneaky way of doing business.
"(I've) never, I'm quite sure, done that," he said. "That'll be another example where they'll say anything and don't think it through."
In the Toronto Star he is quoted as saying that rural schools are under threat if religious schools in their area "peel off" pupils - but that's already happened with the Catholic schools! Again, a prinicipled position would be to uphold the public system and defund the Catholic one to bolster these "schools in danger".
He had also failed to notice Education Minister Wynne's discomfort with the status quo from 2001 which the NDP have just dug up. A letter to NOW magazine included the following (with emphasis added):
A higher-level and, perhaps for some of us, less vital issue is the fact that in Ontario people of one faith get preferential treatment in the school system. This situation is historical and, as such, has become part of the fabric of our society. Because it is part of our history, however, does not mean we cannot question or examine its validity. That is precisely what the United Nations has asked us to do, and that is exactly what I advocate.McGuinty's "new" position, that Catholic schools are historically significant with the consequent "grandfathering" through the Constitution has been rejected in 1999 by the United Nations Human Rights Committee (at 10.4, emphasis added):
The Committee begins by noting that the fact that a distinction is enshrined in the Constitution does not render it reasonable and objective. In the instant case, the distinction was made in 1867 to protect the Roman Catholics in Ontario. The material before the Committee does not show that members of the Roman Catholic community or any identifiable section of that community are now in a disadvantaged position compared to those members of the Jewish community that wish to secure the education of their children in religious schools. Accordingly, the Committee rejects the State party's argument that the preferential treatment of Roman Catholic schools is nondiscriminatory because of its Constitutional obligation.If the Harris Tories had dealt with the issue rather than Janet Ecker handling it in a "Mel Lastman vs the WHO" fashion disdaining the UNHRC's jurisdiction, the issue might have been settled eight years ago - now the pendulum has swung (mostly) back in the Davis-ite direction. While Tory will not gain anything from this he won't lose from other constituencies, McGuinty may have shaken a number of his MPs in communities where this is a live issue. But the greater issues should be McGuinty's failure of principle, Smitherman's economy with the truth and Wynne's failure as Education Minister to start the debate she called for from opposition.