Jackson Doughart
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The Catholic schools paradox

Prince Arthur Herald, 12 February 2014

The dual public school system of Ontario — Catholic on one side and secular (formerly Protestant) on the other — has no shortage of cleavages as a matter of public debate. Many Catholics who are otherwise ambivalent about the state’s funding of religious institutions feel an obligation to advocate the status quo on what may be called tribal grounds. Others recognize that the present state of affairs elevates their religious group to the level of privilege above others, as there are no Jewish, Protestant, Orthodox, Hindu, or Muslim public school boards that operate as a separate stream alongside the existing ones. As such, they concede that in a pluralist and egalitarian society, fairness dictates that they should give up their privilege and accept the same public school arrangement as others.

The most interesting and intellectually-consistent faction, however, are those adherents to the Church of Rome who oppose the public funding of Catholic schools as a matter of religious principle. One example is my Prince Arthur Herald colleague Will Cohen, who wrote a convincing piece in these pages last autumn which argued against the separate school system for Catholics. His point was that by accepting public funding, Catholic educational institutions were effectively forfeiting sovereignty over their own curricula, as well as the religious culture of their schools. Those resisting changes in the Zeitgeist that go against Catholic teachings, and in favour of a more secular lifestyle both public and private, have traditionally found sanctuary in the institutions of the church. Yet in accepting public funding, Cohen argued, the schools have had to critically compromise with the dominant secular and non-Catholic population — jeopardizing, in his view, the extent to which Catholic education in Ontario remains truly Catholic.

Cohen's view makes the most sense to me, speaking as a non-Catholic and non-Ontarian observing the debate. What makes less sense is that the corollary argument — i.e. that public funding of Catholic schools should be maintained precisely because it dilutes their religious character — does not have more purchase on the secular political left, which is more or less uniformly against the present regime of separate, publically-funded faith education. The Left's argument, represented especially by the One School System Network and the Canadian Secular Alliance, rests on a hostile view of how the curricula of Catholic schools depart from the secular mainstream: the schools are less ambitious about promoting tolerance of homosexuality, they support and teach the Church's position on abortion, they defend traditional gender roles, and so on.

The irony is that the people who care about the promotion of these things would have much to lose if Catholic schools were to lose their public funding. Though many parents would doubtless transfer their children into secular schools if the religious ones were to lose their subventions, there would certainly still be a great many who would swallow the tuition costs to keep them enrolled, believing either that the superior education warrants it or that their children ought to be schooled in an institution of their faith. And if such schools were to be defunded, the Catholic community in charge of the schools would surely make great effort to consolidate the now-private system so that as many possible families would be able to stay.

Once this happens, the mainstream secular movement, whose ambitions in education include sex education, multiculturalism, environmentalism, and the inculcation of more tolerant social attitudes, would lose its power over all of those children, wielded at present only by its ability to mandate secular components in the Catholic school programs. Aside from trimming the budget for education, it is something of a mystery why these people don't see their advantage where it currently lies.

Like Cohen, I would favour on principle the defunding of all schools, given the absolute terror of contemporary education standards and outcomes. A government assistance program for those families that could not pay tuition costs, in conjunction with a plurality of schools according to different faiths and social beliefs, would ensure universal access to education while maximizing parental choice and (most importantly) getting the culture warriors out of the educational mainstream.

In the meantime, we are left with the Catholic Schools Paradox: Secular Leftists lobby for public defunding, which portends to remove their influence from faith-school curricula, while Catholic families hold on to the public funding which compromises just how Catholic their children's education remains.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com