“I have no illusions about how toxic a political issue this is: I grew up in the Catholic tradition; at 16 I was determined to become a Catholic priest,” Sorbara writes in The Battlefield of Ontario Politics, An Autobiography.
The dual Catholic and public systems were right for 1867, but are out of step with the Ontario of today, Sorbara told The Catholic Register.
“It’s no longer defensible in a pluralistic society,” said the former finance minister under Dalton McGuinty. “As I say in the book, it has served us very well. But I just think it’s time to revisit that question.”
Now retired from the battlefield after two stints in government, the 68-year-old Sorbara claims he only wants to open up the debate and put issues on the table for the next generation of political leaders.
“Isn’t it amazing that Greg Sorbara, after 12 years in government, would come out with that now and not the year we talked about faith-based funding under John Tory?” asked Progressive Conservative education critic Garfield Dunlop. “Now he’s going to be the saviour of secular society? Give me a break.”
Dunlop thinks the time is not right to break down a working education system and replace it with something else.
“I’m a person who believes in the 72-board system. I believe it functions well,” he said. “It’s part of our heritage, our culture. In my opinion it’s not negotiable.”
Neither are the current Liberals enthusiastic about another debate over Catholic education.
“Our government remains committed to working with all of our publicly funded schools to build an excellent education system,” said Education Minister Liz Sandals’ office in an e-mail to The Catholic Register. “Working with our Catholic, public, English and French partners, we have built an education system that is among the best in the world. We will continue to respect our constitutional obligations with respect to Catholic schools and look forward to working with our Catholic school partners to further improve student achievement.”
The 2007 proposal by former PC leader Tory to extend full funding to a wider variety of independent religious schools — Jewish, Muslim, Reformed Christian and others — was never workable, said Sorbara.
“As a political strategist I thought it was a mistake on his (Tory’s) part. I thought it was a system that was entirely unworkable,” Sorbara said.
Sorbara piloted the 2007 provincial Liberal campaign that defeated Tory’s Progressive Conservatives largely on the religious education issue.
“The voters soundly rejected that,” said Sorbara. “Besides that, to divide up a public education system and have many systems for whoever would want their own education system I think would create a much weaker public education system and a much more expensive one as well.”
Sorbara is a product of Toronto’s St. Michael’s College School. He and his wife Kate enrolled their children in a private Waldorf school where high school fees run just shy of $20,000 per year. Reducing public education to a one-size-fits-all, purely secular system won’t cause better-off families to abandon public education for the greater religious and educational choice of private schools, said Sorbara.
As long as the public system has strong government support, public education in Ontario won’t become a ghetto for poor students in which the rich have no stake, he said.
“I think you have to be sure that you advocate for a strong public system,” he said. “During the McGuinty years, we made real improvements in the quality of education right across the board — including higher standards in private education.”