Catholics need to step up for education rights

By 
  • October 19, 2007
{mosimage}TORONTO - The Ontario election is over, but not the hard feelings and not the debate.

Catholics are under new pressure to justify public funding for their schools following three months of faith-and-education debate leading into the election earlier this month that saw Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals win with a solid majority.

“Mr. (John) Tory opened this debate and I think very irresponsibly put a divisive proposal on the table,” said Education Minister Kathleen Wynne after she beat Progressive Conservative Leader Tory in the election to hold onto Don Valley West. “And discovered that it was very unpopular.”

“Mr. Tory made the mistake, I guess, of underestimating the level of objection in this province,” said Catholic Principals’ Council of Ontario executive director Lou Rocha. “It’s all been resurrected now. We’re now resurrecting the decision to extend funding (to Catholic schools) back in ’85. People are saying that was a bad idea.”

Across Canada 53 per cent of those polled told SES Research that faith groups should not be accommodated in public education funding. SES also found that 51 per cent of Ontarians thought funding for religious schools leads to segregation. An Ipsos-Reid poll found that just 23 per cent of Ontario supports the status quo, and 53 per cent support a “public school only” system.

The returning Liberals may be committed to continued funding for the Catholic schools, but the Catholics still have a problem, said John Borst, activist school trustee and editor of the Tomorrow’s Trust web site (www.tomorrowstrust.ca).

“I don’t think this is an issue that’s going to go away,” Borst said. “Perhaps in the short term, but in the long term it’s likely to reappear.”

So how does the Catholic school system go about winning back popular support, or at least acceptance?

“It’s not going to be something that’s going to be solved in the next two months, six months. It probably won’t be for another year or so,” said Brian Evoy, Ontario Association of Parents in Catholic Education president. “It’s going to be a long discussion.”

Evoy said Tory’s proposal to extend funding to non-Catholic religious schools failed because the plan was vague and people thought Tory had a hidden agenda.

“Nobody knew how John Tory was going to implement faith-based schools,” he said.

The big problem for Catholics is that their neighbours aren’t seeing the contribution Catholic schools make to the community, said Canadian Catholic School Trustees’ Association executive director Greg McNally.

“One thing that has been overlooked in the election in terms of the Catholic schools so far is the value that they have brought to Ontario and to Canada,” McNally said.

Campaigning in a losing bid for a provincial seat in the Oct. 10 election, former Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association president Louise Ervin heard plenty of objections to Catholic school funding as she knocked on doors in Kitchener.

“How do we convince people that this is not a duplication of services, that this is not costing any more money, that it does not divide the community?” Ervin asked. “We can’t just sit on our constitutional rights.”

“This means that the Catholic community is going to have to galvanize and rally up to defend the system.”

“We have to defend ourselves, defend what we have in Ontario, because there is a one-system movement. It’s got a voice,” said Evoy.

The Catholic education establishment is not asleep at the wheel on this. They’ve noticed the polls and newspaper editorials in favour of ending support to Catholic schools, said Sr. Joan Cronin, Institute for Catholic Education executive director. Cronin was scheduled to meet with executive directors from the seven ICE  partners just after The Catholic Register’s deadline. Much of the meeting will be devoted to deconstructing the election debate on education, she said.

Cronin said she wasn’t surprised public opinion is so negative on Catholic education. She was surprised the debate generated so much heat.

“It was just the intensity of it leading up to the election,” she said. “We’ve got a lot to do on sponsoring Catholic identity.”

“I don’t think it’s a fight just for the Catholic community, quite frankly,” said Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association president Elaine MacNeil. “I think it’s got to be broader than that.”

“We have some work to do with our Catholic ratepayers at the very least,” said Rocha.

The French-language Catholic school boards have some experience marketing their system to the rest of Ontario. A year ago the French Catholic boards, which educate 80 per cent of Franco-Ontarian students, launched C1+, or “C’est une plus” — a campaign to convince people of the added value of French Catholic education. The campaign relies mainly on a slick web site at www.c1plus.ca.

“We knew that we have to highlight what this system is bringing as a positive in all aspects of this society. That’s the objective,” said Carole Drouin, executive director of the Association Franco-Ontarienne des Conseils Scolaires Catholique.

The campaign is aimed outside the community, but it also helps to establish a sense of pride and ownership among Franco-Ontarian Catholic families, said Drouin.

“At the end of the story the parents will have to stand up and speak for the system,” Drouin said.

All the partners in Catholic education — the teachers’ union, school boards, parents, bishops, etc. — will have to get on board if there’s going to be a successful campaign to promote Catholic education, said Ervin.

“If we go to the government and we’re not all singing out of the same hymn book and the same page we’re going to be giving out very conflicted messages, and we won’t be able to make it work,” she said.

Among the Catholic voices in that choir, parents are the most important, said Rocha. Parents will determine whether Ontario eventually retains or loses its Catholic schools, just as they determined the outcome in Quebec and Newfoundland — the two provinces that amended the Constitution to eliminate publicly funded Catholic education.

“What we know from Newfoundland is that they did not engage their parents soon enough,” Rocha said.

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