There’s an issue that has been simmering for some time now on the education scene in the province of Ontario, but it appears that the heat has been turned up on the matter over the past couple of weeks and, if all goes well, it will come to a full boil in the months to come.
If all goes well, you say?
The time has come for full-fledged conversation, debate, Royal Commission—perhaps all three—regarding the issue of a fully-funded Catholic school system in Ontario. I don’t think that we’ve ever really had one…a conversation, that is. Instead, the issue lives just beneath the surface of the educational landscape here in this province and, although it breaks through to inspire provocative conversation at cocktail parties, family reunions and around the water cooler, it’s never really been fully and thoroughly addressed in the public square or, even more important, the legislature.
Well, one provincial politician did mention it once, in a roundabout way, and paid the price.
The issue of publicly-funded Catholic schools in Ontario has started to bubble up recently as the result of the Ontario government’s insistence that, as part of a new anti-bullying policy, students at any publicly-funded school in the province be permitted to form any type of support group that they choose and, more important, be able to call it whatever they wish. The monaker, Gay-Straight Alliance is the real sticking point here. On the one hand, the government feels strongly that bullying connected with sexual orientation must be identified, named and brought out into the open. On the other hand, the Catholic Church is adamant that the use of the word gay would serve to acknowledge something that its theology clearly rejects.
So, there’s been a bit of a standoff around the issue with many citing the real elephant in the room as Catholic schools accepting government money, yet wanting to live by their own set of rules and precepts.
So I say, let’s leverage the attention currently being paid to the issue and use it as an opportunity to address the bigger, more robust elephant head on. Let’s name it and begin to do something that not many seem to be willing to do: DEAL WITH IT!
We need to begin by admitting that the constitutional provision that guarantees Catholic schools access to government money has lost any real semblance of credibility in a 21st conversation about school funding. The ground has shifted substantially and the historical argument loses more of its punch with every census report. Most of the people that I know who still play the constitutional card do so with more than a little discomfort.
We also need to ask questions about the number of students that attend Catholic schools that are actually solidly connected with a Catholic Church community. It’s my sense that this number continues to decline, but we need to ask the question.
At the same time, we need to wonder why politicians are so reluctant to talk about the issue. What is it about talking about publicly-funded Catholic schools that is considered anathema?
I’ve been teaching in a Catholic school system for the past thirty years. I have very much appreciated having the opportunity to work in a culture that resonates with my own faith life, and allows me to freely use the language of that life with my students and colleagues. There is a distinct character and spirit in our Catholic schools and it would be a positive thing for many if that were able to continue.
But, the existence of publicly-funded Catholic schools is threatened, not by the power struggle between church and state that is currently playing out in Ontario. but by the lack of full and open public dialogue about what we really want our educational landscape to look like in this province. We’ve been resting on old laurels, on old arguments and a very tired sense of constitutional entitlement.
It’s time for some fresh, honest and open thinking about education, schools and the way that taxpayers money is being spent on both. We need our education leaders and our politicians to stop shying away from the issue and, instead, lead us in a democratic conversation.
And I think that the group that should be pushing hardest for the conversation is…you guessed it…the Catholic school system!
So, if you were invited to participate in a conversation about public funding of Catholic schools, what questions would you want to see on the table? What new ideas or arguments would you introduce that might shed some new light on the issue?