Could Catholics run Jewish schools?

  • October 19, 2007
TORONTO - The future of Catholic education in Ontario may be bound up with the Khalsa Community School for Sikh children in Malton, or Bialik Hebrew Day School in Toronto. Key figures in Catholic education are thinking about winning the debate over faith-based education by opening a non-Catholic religious school.

A summer-long election debate over funding faith-based schools highlighted the plight of non-Catholic parents who are fighting the same battle for funding Catholic parents fought in the 1970s. They pay taxes and their kids are excellent students who grow up to be outstanding citizens. But they have to scrape together tuition fees for a school that reflects their fundamental beliefs, their culture and their traditions.

John Borst, activist school trustee and editor of the Tomorrow’s Trust web site (, believes the way to change the parameters of a debate pitting Catholics on the inside of the funding formula against minority religions on the outside is for the Catholics to run their own pilot project on extended funding.

“The best way to do it would be to find a way to broker some kind of compromise that would see some kind of funding available for a new faith-based school,” he said.

There’s nothing in Ontario’s Education Act which restricts the Catholic school boards to running Catholic schools, he said. They could set up a Jewish or Greek Orthodox school within the board and allow the school council latitude in creating and encouraging a religious environment.

If such a school was up and running — delivering the Ontario curriculum with licensed, unionized teachers — the panic over how faith-based education might divide the community would dissipate, said Borst.

“If Dufferin-Peel (Catholic District School Board) was to open up a Muslim school, the pressure would be on the Liberals as now the party in power to change the legislation so the public school system can do the same thing,” he said.

It wouldn’t be easy, said Lou Rocha, executive director of the Catholic Principal’s Council of Ontario. He points out that for many years the English Catholic boards played host to French Catholic schools, and there was often conflict between English and French trustees.

But Oliver Carroll, chair of the Toronto Catholic District School Board, thinks it may be worth the extra effort.

“You expand out your base of people who now have an interest in the continuation of the Catholic system — and relatively well organized, vocal groups,” said Carroll.

The TCDSB already runs a stand-alone school for Eastern Rite students named after Cardinal Josep Slypyj. The public board in Toronto runs an aboriginal heritage school which incorporates a great deal of traditional native spirituality into both the curriculum and culture of the school. Running a Greek Orthodox or Armenian school wouldn’t be that much of a stretch for a GTA Catholic board, said Carroll.

There have been discussions with various religious groups over the years but they’ve never led anywhere, said Carroll.

Radical religious and ethnic diversity is Toronto’s problem, not North Bay’s, said Elaine MacNeil of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association.

“A lot of these questions are more central to the GTA, perhaps, and Ottawa,” she said. “You know, you’re not talking about Muslim families in Northern Ontario. That’s not their critical issue. They’re trying to figure out how to keep their schools open when they’re losing jobs.”

 Declining enrolment, not religious schools, is much more likely to drive the education agenda the next four years, Kathleen Wynne told The Catholic Register after she had defeated Conservative Leader John Tory in the Don Valley West riding.

“The biggest issue coming up across the province is not this constitutional issue. It’s the demographic shift,” she said. “The fact that you have declining enrolment in 63 of our 72 school boards — that’s a much more pressing issue for the next minister of education than the constitutional issue.”

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