Don’t end funding for Ontario's Catholic schools—start funding independent schools

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Appeared in the Toronto Sun, June 21, 2017

Once again, activist groups are calling for defunding Catholic education in Ontario. Although education funding reform is long overdue, simply axing separate school boards isn’t the way to do it. Instead, Ontario should consider comprehensive funding reform that supports a wide range of schools outside of the secular public system.

Ontario is one of only three provinces that fully funds Catholic education in their public school system (Alberta and Saskatchewan being the other two). Elsewhere in Canada, Catholic education is provided through independent schools. Of course, many non-Catholic families send their children to Ontario Catholic schools.

But why are so many non-Catholic parents in Ontario choosing to send their children to Catholic schools rather than institutions rooted in their own faith traditions, or secular independent schools?

One reason may lie in another uncommon feature of Ontario’s education system—its failure to provide public funding for students attending independent schools. By comparison, in Quebec and the Western provinces, independent schools (religious and secular) receive between 35 and 70 per cent of the per-student operational funding provided to public schools.

This critically important difference means that for Ontario parents dissatisfied with a local government-run secular school, Catholic schools represent the only alternative where they won’t have to pay the entire tuition cost. In Quebec and western provinces, parents have access to government support to cover part of their tuition expenses for a wider range of choices.

So what’s the solution in Ontario?

Simply axing government support for Catholic schools, as some want to do, would leave Ontario parents with just one form of subsidized education—the secular government-run public system. Families not well-served by this system, but lacking the means to pay for independent education, would be left with no options.

A better strategy would be to remove Catholic education from the government-run system while simultaneously introducing partial funding for families that choose to send their children to qualified independent schools—including Catholic schools.

This reform would leave Ontario with a funding model similar to British Columbia’s—a province with some of the lowest spending levels and best student outcomes in Canada.

Adopting the B.C. model would accomplish two important things. First, it would ease the financial burden on existing independent school families who now pay the full cost of their children’s tuition plus taxes to support government schools. Second, it would bring independent education and greater educational choice within the financial reach of more families.

What’s more, contrary to claims that this type of policy “robs” the government-run school system of funding, it can actually save taxpayers money. A 2014 study found that the B.C. model would save Ontario between $849 million and $1.87 billion annually as more families opt for partially funded schools—not the fully-funded public system.

Some critics may note that Ontario’s constitution guarantees government-funded Catholic education and therefore prohibits this type of reform. But a recent analysis from Queen’s University law professor Bruce Pardy suggests that amending any constitutional obstacles could be done simply by passing legislation. In short, any government in Ontario has the power to amend the current policy, if it so chooses.

Ontario stands alone in providing full funding for Catholic education—and nothing for schools with other religious orientations or other types of independent schools. There are solutions to this policy anachronism that can provide support for a much larger number of families. To find them, Ontario need only look west.

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