Tuesday, January 9, 2007

A Unified Secular Public School System for Ontario

The NDP Socialist Caucus is hosting an interesting forum at the upcoming Ontario NDP Convention in Toronto. Malcolm Buchanan, a staunch New Democrat, and former President of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation will speak on Friday, January 26, at 6 p.m. on the topic of: "Why the Ontario NDP should stand for a Unified, Secular Public School System".

In Ontario, Catholic schools are the only religious-based schools that are afforded public funding. Not only is this policy discriminatory, but it has also been condemned by the United Nations Human Rights Committee as a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Proponents of the publicly-funded Separate School system argue that Catholics are guaranteed public funding as a constitutional right and that any attempt to take it away would be ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada. This argument is hardly based in reality. Our "Living Tree" Constitution is a constantly evolving document. Within the last decade, both Quebec and Newfoundland have abolished religious-based systems of education and replaced them with secular systems. The country did not experience constitutional paralysis as a result. Ontario should be following the lead of these provinces.

In 1984, when Ontario Premier Bill Davis extended public funding for Separate Schools past Grade nine, the NDP supported the move. Since then, the party's traditional ties to the union movement have prevented the NDP from taking the principled position that the province is best served by a single public education system. Unions representing workers in the separate system have long feared that any move to eliminate public funding for Catholic education will result in job losses for teachers and support staff.

Buchanan's support for a single public system is strategically important because it helps diffuse the argument that support for a single secular public system is anti-union. The fact is that Ontario could achieve a single, secular public school system without any union layoffs whatsoever. It's in terms of administration that we would be able to eliminate duplication and inefficiencies. Schools would stay open, teachers would continue to teach, students would continue to learn.

In terms of political strategy, this would be a good issue for the Ontario NDP for several reasons.

1) Support for the proposal would help expand the NDP universe because far more people support the notion of a single unified secular school system than support the NDP.

2) The NDP has become invisible and almost irrelevant since its defeat in 1995. This issue would undoubtedly create a stir in the media and the NDP would have something important to say.

3) Support for the proposal would be the perfect wedge issue for the NDP. Liberals and Conservatives support Separate School funding. It's a clear case of discrimination and the party can take a principled position that is endorsed by the United Nations.

4) The party has much more to gain than it has to lose. Sure it's a divisive issue, but fewer and fewer Catholics are supporting the NDP, despite its continued support for Separate School funding. As for Catholic Teachers' unions - they have shifted their resources heavily to supporting the Ontario Liberal Party in recent years. The proposal therefore, would have the effect of alienating specific constituencies that are already on the outs with the party.

5) It's the right thing to do. People want to see politicians and political parties stand up for basic democratic principles. Winning the respect of voters is the first step towards winning their votes.

For more background information on Separate School funding in Ontario read this.