Education debate feared, welcomed

By  Michael Higgins
  • October 21, 2007
And so the Ontario election is over. The Grits are returned with a majority. The Tories are licking their wounds. The NDP and Green Party observe largely from the margins.  And, of course, the issue of faith-based schools — John Tory’s killer decision — remains for another day of reckoning.

Undoubtedly, the brouhaha over the Conservative commitment to extend public funding to “religious” schools outside of the Catholic iteration played a key role in the election’s outcome. Undoubtedly, there are many voters and political partisans who saw in Tory’s subsequent decision to have a free vote over the matter in the legislature should he become premier a tactical manoeuvre of desperate proportions. In any event, we can all rest confident in the knowledge that the debate once joined will not go away.

The next election and the time leading up to it will produce a dust-up, with significant consequences, over the continued existence of the Catholic public school system in the province of Ontario. And this is to be both feared and welcomed.

Feared: The recent debate stirred up an emotional reaction that laid bare many ugly features of contemporary Ontario life and did so in a way that may take some time to correct.  The merits of faith-based schools was never seriously debated. The spectre of ideologically driven, fanatically zealous and anti-democratic schools ripping the very heart out of the social fabric of the province was a bit of dangerous mischief. In addition, judging from the surveys, polls, letters-to-the-editor, commentaries, editorials and polemical outbursts during media debates, a large percentage of the populace has not had the opportunity to be informed about these schools or has chosen to have fear and myth bolster argument rather than cold reason.

Welcomed: This debate provides an occasion to speak directly to the benefits of faith-based schooling, provides the opportunity to amass relevant data around the competitive advantages of offering real choice in educational models, and provides the advocates of such schools and Catholic schools in particular the chance to demonstrate the essential richness that comes from an authentic mosaic rather than a homogeneous template of educational experience. In other words, we need to show that Catholic schools do not sow social division at the expense of social cohesion, that Catholic schools are not dens of intolerance and inequity, that Catholic schools strengthen society at large because they enhance the quality of provincial life, and that Catholic schools can and do measure up to all the standards that guarantee social harmony and economic prosperity and do so from the perspective of a meaningful social justice ethic.

I was reminded of how potent an argument for Catholic schools can be found in the simple act of showcasing graduate success at a recent high school graduation ceremony in Kitchener. The Waterloo Catholic District School Board chose the right moment to highlight its Honoured Catholic Graduate award by incorporating the event in the larger graduation exercises for St. Mary’s Secondary. This year’s recipient — the third so far — is Lisa Laflamme, a senior correspondent and anchor for CTV News. She provided a rousing tribute to the quality of her education, as indeed did immediate past recipients Patrick Flynn, a justice of the Superior Court of Ontario, and Brian Orend, a University of Waterloo philosophy professor and war and peace specialist.

Nothing speaks more eloquently than the power of personal witness. What is true of Catholic schools is as true of Catholic hospitals, social agencies and universities. Society will know and judge us by our fruits. In this, we have nothing to fear.  What we should fear is complacency, timidity and inaction on our part. We should not be held hostage to misinformation and prejudice. And although those who bear the primary responsibility for stewardship must make the case with compelling conviction, all those who treasure the special value of Catholic education, indeed all faith-based education, must contribute to the larger chorus of support.

Nothing persuades more successfully than a record of achievement positively reinforced. By either retreating for cover or responding defensively we actually diminish our capacity to flourish. Nay, survive.

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