Ontario should privatize Catholic schools and increase choice for parents

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Appeared in the Toronto Sun, June 15, 2023
Ontario should privatize Catholic schools and increase choice for parents

It seems that rarely a month goes by without someone denouncing Ontario’s Roman Catholic school system. The latest controversy stems from the York Catholic District School Board’s recent refusal to fly a Pride flag at its board office.

Predictably, this flag flap led to widespread demands to defund Ontario’s Catholic schools. Critics argue that the York board’s refusal to fly the Pride flag proves that Catholic schools are intolerant and deserve no public funding.

It’s ironic that some of the loudest advocates for diversity are, in fact, intolerant of anyone who refuses to accede to their demands. Catholic beliefs about gender and sexuality are neither new nor unique, and the beliefs they affirm today are the same ones the Catholic Church has proclaimed for nearly 2,000 years. No one can seriously claim to be surprised that Roman Catholic parents want Catholic schools to reflect Catholic beliefs.

Critics also fail to recognize the uniqueness of Ontario’s education system. Ontario is one of only three provinces (along with Alberta and Saskatchewan) that provides Catholic education within the public school system. But crucially, outside of Atlantic Canada, Ontario is the only province that does not provide any funding for independent schools. So defunding Catholic schools would make Ontario’s education system even more monolithic than it is now.

So what’s the solution?

Ontario parents deserve more educational choice, not less. Instead of defunding Catholic schools, it makes far more sense to privatize them and extend funding to any independent school that meets provincial educational standards. This could include schools from other religions (such as Islam) or schools with a distinctive educational focus (sports, arts or science). In other words, stop worrying about the religious beliefs or educational philosophy of each school and let the money follow the student.

And if Ontario’s Catholic schools were privatized and received government funding based on student enrollment, they’d have the independence they need to reflect their church’s religious beliefs more faithfully while at the same time ensuring that anyone who wants to attend a Catholic school is able to do so. This would be a win-win situation for everyone.

This is exactly what they do in Manitoba and British Columbia where Catholic schools (along with many other independent schools) are eligible for approximately 50 per cent of the operational funding allotted to public schools. Interestingly, neither of these provinces is mired in controversy over whether to continue this funding, nor are there widespread demands to defund Catholic schools in these provinces.

Allowing funding to follow the student puts power in the hands of the parents. While this will not make educational bureaucrats happy, it’s the best way to ensure that students enroll in the schools that work best for them. Taking away the option of a Catholic education is a sure-fire way to alienate parents and breed mistrust of government. Schools should meet certain standards (which is why standardized testing is important), but just as people are free to choose their family doctors, parents should be able to send their children to the schools of their choice. The bill is paid by the government, but the choice is in the hands of parents.

Diversity is a fact of life in Canada. We will continue to be a country where people have widely different cultural and religious practices and beliefs. Either we try to force everyone into the same mold by making everyone attend the same schools, or we truly embrace diversity by allowing schools to reflect the multicultural mosaic of Canada and give Canadians more choice.

Arguing about Pride flags is a meaningless diversion from this larger issue. Let’s focus instead on ensuring that all students receive the best education possible.

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