Tories, faith groups seek changes
to school funding

By ANDY LEVY-AJZENKOPF
Staff Reporter

TORONTO - Ontario’s Conservative Opposition education critic is on a mission to revamp what he calls the province’s discriminatory faith-based education funding system.

Late last year, Frank Klees, MPP for Oak Ridges, tabled a petition in the legislature calling for the Liberal government to finally end the province’s practice of publically funding both Roman Catholic schools and secular schools equally.

“We call on the Ontario legislature to pass legislation to provide equitable funding in respect of all faith-based schools in Ontario without religious discrimination and without any reduction in funding for public education, with accountability requirements and standards in place to ensure that the public interest is safeguarded,” read the petition.

Jewish schools and schools of other faiths receive no public funding, forcing parents to pay prohibitive tuition fees in order to educate their children, while the government continues using their tax dollars to fund Roman Catholic schools.

The province argues it has a clear mandate to obey the 1867 Constitution, which sought to protect existing rights for denominational schools of the time, requiring Ontario to maintain a publicly funded Roman Catholic system.

In 1999, the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) ruled this funding was discriminatory, violating Canada’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, saying the need to protect Roman Catholic funding was now out of context with modern times.

The UNHRC censured the province again on this issue in a 2005 report.

Klees said the Liberal government continues its unwillingness to discuss this issue.

“I can tell you that I have had no response from [Ontario Education Minister Kathleen Wynne],” Klees said. “I’ve questioned the minister specifically relating to these petitions... it’s very clear that this Liberal government is not prepared to consider this.”

Klees believes it’s an issue that needs closure and will become more important as the provincial election approaches on Oct. 10.

“There’s no doubt that this will be an election issue,” Klees said. “[The current petition] is only one in a series of many that I and some of my colleagues have presented through the official Opposition over the last year and a half.”

Klees said he and Conservative Opposition leader, John Tory, continue to conduct stakeholder meetings to determine what a fair education funding policy would look like under a Tory government.

Wynne could not be reached for comment.

In reply to CJN queries, a spokesperson from the minister’s office issued the following response, indicating it was presented in the legislature in reply to Klees’ petition.

“The government has no intention of funding private religious schools. Our government recognizes the right of parents to choose alternative forms of education for their children... however, our clear focus and our government’s priority continues to be introducing measures that significantly improve the publicly funded system.”

It went on to say that the government will continue to maintain its constitutional school funding obligations.

Many groups have been fighting for equitable funding for years.

In 2004, the Multi-Faith Coalition for Equal Funding of Religious Schools (MFC), a grassroots movement representing Jews, Sikhs, Muslims and an assortment of non-Catholic Christians, drafted a detailed proposal suggesting how to extend funding to religious schools.

The province’s education ministry acknowledged receipt of the proposal, but Gerrard Kennedy, then education minister, never responded to the MFC.

According to Gila Martow, an outspoken representative with Parents for Equality in Education Funding (PEEF), an affiliate of the MFC, there’s been little to no response from the province since, despite repeated attempts at contact.

The MFC recently sent an invitation to Wynne to participate in an upcoming MFC symposium on April 16, regarding the issue.

“Her office said they received the invitation and are ‘looking at her schedule’ now to see if she can attend. But we still haven’t been able to arrange any meetings or speak to her,” Martow said.

Martow said PEEF respects the minister and doesn’t blame Wynne for the current situation, but added that the time to address “the elephant in the room” has come.

Similarly, Ontario’s Canadian Jewish Congress, in a joint effort with the various UJA Federations of Ontario, has also been hard at work addressing this issue.

Steven Shulman, regional director of the CJC, noted that for the last two years his team has consulted with the province’s Jewish day school leaderships, diverse faith groups, government officials and many other stakeholders on how to move forward on education funding.

“This is a primary advocacy issue for this community and a vital time leading up to a [provincial] election,” Shulman said. “We want to find the approach that gives us the best opportunity for funding, while... being good public policy for Ontario.”

Based on the feedback received, Shulman’s team drafted a set of guiding principles going forward.

In a nutshell, the CJC is pushing for Jewish and other faith-based schools to be adopted as full participants in the public school sphere, suggesting their faith curricula and values could only add to the Canadian mosiac.

“Bringing Catholic schools into the public sphere grew the public sphere,” Shulman said. “If we want to grow public education again, a very important way to do it, would be to bring the remaining variety of faith-based schools that are willing to meet appropriate accountability standards, into the public sphere.”

Shulman acknowledged this as a work-in-progress, but said other groups have been receptive to the idea.

 

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