William Phillips; “Duplicate boards are extremely expensive and unnecessary.” Photo courtesy of William Phillips.
Time For Province To Stop Funding Catholic Education
As ironic as it might seem for a person who was raised in the Catholic school system, I am compelled to applaud Ontario’s Green Party for making the merger of the public and Catholic school systems part of its platform in the run-up to the June 7 provincial election.
What a pity this issue is on the backburner of the three cowardly mainstream parties — Liberals, Conservatives and NDP — who remain tone deaf to the fiscal logic and morality of consolidating the hopelessly inefficient hodgepodge of four boards — English public, French public and Catholic boards in each language.
The Green Party advocates this long overdue haircut to the delivery of Ontario’s education system.
“This starts by unifying our publicly funded schools into a single school system with English and French,” says the Green Party vision statement. “Eliminating administrative duplication in separate boards will create savings we can use for a big investment in a better classroom experience and outcomes.”
How much savings? That’s the primary question I had for Windsor West Green Party candidate Krysta Glovasky-Ridsdale when we chatted over tea at Timmies in early May. She produced a copy of a document by William Phillips, author of the only known study projecting the cost savings of a merger.
Phillips did the study of his own volition in 2012, calculating annual savings at between $1.269 and $1.594 billion. I asked Phillips over the phone why the provincial government hasn’t hired an accounting firm to do an independent study.
“Because they’re chicken,” he says. “I was very careful not to overstate the savings so that anyone who wanted to refute my study couldn’t find fault.”
Phillips isn’t an accountant, but he has vast experience in Ontario’s education system as a parent, teacher, York University Administrator, School Board Trustee and Executive Director of the Ontario Public School Board Association.
His projected savings were calculated as follows: Elimination of school board and governance grants for discontinued Catholic school boards (29 province-wide) — $164.9 million. French language education savings by reducing underutilization of schools — $38 million. Reduction in student transportation grants — $169 million. Savings in capital program costs — $239 million. Economics of scale savings — between $488 million and $813 million.
Although his study is six years old, he insists: “The only change today would be inflation, with the total savings being maybe $3 billion, not $2 billion.”
Phillips says the government doesn’t want to know the huge amount of savings because it would be pilloried for years of wasteful duplicate spending in a climate of severe financial pressures facing Ontario education.
The current system made sense 151 years ago when our Fathers of Confederation struck a compromise to create a country that guaranteed education funding to the majority of English Protestants in Upper Canada (Ontario) and the majority of French Catholics in Lower Canada (Quebec).
But what has evolved into modern day Ontario bears little resemblance to 1867. The Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) is circulating a pamphlet highlighting the diversified population in the province. For instance, of the youth population living in Ontario, 37% are immigrants. Half of Toronto’s residents were born outside Canada.
“The increasing diversity of Ontario’s population makes it difficult to defend a school system devoted to one religion,” ETFO declares.
The Globe and Mail recently published a Freedom of Information (FOI) analysis that shows Catholic school boards are increasingly enrolling non-Catholic children in Ontario. Last year, the number reached almost 11,000, an 18% increase in the last few years.
At one time you needed a Catholic baptismal certificate to gain entry into an RC school. This is no longer the case. In some boards, The Globe and Mail reported upwards of a quarter of elementary students and their parents or guardians, did not have a certificate.
A Human Rights Commission settlement last year ruled that non-Catholic parents have the right to demand their children to be excused from religious studies. This fortifies the argument that there is no real difference between Catholic and public education schools.
To help compete with the Greater Essex County District School Board (GECDSB) for students, which generate $12,000 each in annual provincial funding, the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board (WECDSB) began accepting non-Catholic students in 2014.
The Globe and Mail data showed that 217 non-Catholics registered in 2014-15 in Windsor-Essex with the number almost doubling to approximately 400 in 2016-17. The poaching tactic has intensified the expensive marketing campaigns of both boards in quest of students. It’s not about religion, it’s about the money.
The Phillips 2012 study projected the potential savings derived from eliminating the local Catholic board would be $6,212,464 annually.
In addition to reducing Ontario’s obscene debt, some of that money could be directed towards special education programs, which are chronically underfunded. The grant for special education at the WECDSB for 2017-18 was reportedly $26.4 million, compared to an expenditure of $30.7 million.
The political head scratcher in all this rests with polls measuring support for stopping Catholic School funding. They consistently come down on the side of merger.
A 2018 ETFO poll indicates that 56 percent of Ontarians agree with this position and a significant number have no opinion. More and more Catholics and former Catholics like myself, agree with the Phillips position that duplicate boards are “extremely expensive and unnecessary.”
The fact that Canada’s leaders in 1867 made a deal should not mean that deal can never change. In the 1990s, Quebec eliminated its Catholic and Protestant school boards and Newfoundland replaced seven denominational school boards with one public board.
If Ontario asked the Federal Government to amend the constitution to permit one merged system, as happened in Quebec and Newfoundland, it would no doubt be done with little hassle.
Only Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta remain as two-system dinosaurs and in Saskatchewan a judge ruled that the province can’t fund non-Catholic students in Catholic schools. The province is appealing that decision.
The way forward in Ontario, says Phillips, would be for the provincial government to commission a discussion paper including estimated cost savings, and then stage a referendum asking Ontarians if they would support a merger if the money saved would be used to better the education system.
“I am certain 70 to 75 percent would say yes,” he remarks.
Editor’s Note: Alan Halberstadt is a public school trustee with the Greater Essex County District School Board.