Thursday, February 2, 2012

A political strategy for re-visiting the Catholic school system in Ontario...

Dalton McGuinty's Liberal government has a minority of seats. Re-visiting the Catholic school system isn't something that will likely be contemplated right now with the government's fate hanging in the balance.

But nevertheless this issue screams for action!

This is perhaps Dalton McGuinty's last term as our 'Education Premier' (unless his government falls in the near future and an unexpected election is called.) Who but a Roman Catholic premier could have credibility re-visiting the whole separate school issue? No one could accuse McGuinty of attacking Catholicism or Christianity because he himself is Roman Catholic and his own wife has earned a living teaching in the Catholic system.

But I think something needs to give. It's got to happen eventually. We can't go on publicly funding one religion's schools and not others. Either we spend the additional monies to finance more separate, religious school systems (like John Tory proposed to great disaster in 2007), or we shut down the Catholic and integrate all into one public school system.

Of course, the government can't admit that the status quo (of one public system and one Catholic system) is unacceptable. Catholic school rights were guaranteed at Confederation in 1867. Other provinces have decided to update their outdated laws with regard to religious school systems (Quebec and Newfoundland & Labrador). It's time Ontario joined that club.

The province of Ontario has three legit options: 1) keep the current system of one public, secular system and one separate Catholic system to the exclusion of all others, 2) one public system, one Catholic system and other religious school boards in areas where numbers warrant, or 3) one publicly funded secular school system for all students, with no religious schools of any kind.

Which system to move to? How to decide?

I propose a non-binding plebiscite be held on this matter in the near future. Perhaps a provincial plebiscite corresponding with the 2014 municipal vote would be appropriate? Voters should be given a lot of time to think about the issues and there should be publicly-funded campaigns supporting all three sides equally. I would add if the two sides fighting for religious options (#1 or #2) wanted to work together in one campaign, they could together share 50% of the public funds available, while the side supporting one public system for all could receive the other 50% of public funds. No other monies could be spent by third parties in advance of the vote, only these three or two campaigns would have the power to organize and spend money on the plebiscite campaign. Any vote would have to seem fair in order for the result to be seen as legitimate, and splitting funding in this way would be.

How do you vote on a question with three possible answers and achieve a majority result? Do you hold a run-off at a later date between the top two options, or do you hold an instant run-off so voters only have to head to the polls once.

I would create a ballot in which voters would rank their preferred school system options in order from one to three, with one being their top choice, followed by their second choice and then their third choice.

Say for example, you wanted one publicly funded, non-religious school system for all Ontario students, and no public funding for religious schools of any kind, you'd vote with a '1' next to that option. If you couldn't fathom to support religious schools of any kind and didn't want to assign a '2' or '3' on your ballot, you could omit doing so and your '1' vote would count in favour of your preferred option.

If one system didn't receive majority support from voters, the option with the least votes would be dropped, and its voters' second preferences factored in. If for example the first vote was the following:

- 47% in favour of one public system,
- 32% in favour of religious schools for all in addition to the public system,
- 21% for the status quo.

The counters would take the 21% ballots and count their second choices. If you're in favour of keeping just the Catholic board, then you'd likely vote with your second choice for religious schools for all, considering that would allow Catholic schools to remain running. That could lead to a 47% vote for one public board, and 53% in favour of one public board plus religious schools for all, not just Catholic.

Who knows what the result would be? Personally I suspect a big majority would favour one system for all, but Ontarians have surprised me before.

Ontario citizens have never had a chance to express their opinions on the make-up of the publicly funded school system. We inherited our status quo system of one public board and one Catholic board, we never chose it. It's time for Ontarians to be given the chance to express an opinion on this, especially at a time of government restructuring a la Don Drummond.

A preferential, instant runoff ballot would allow for a majority result that is clear.

Why make it unbinding?

Because a binding referendum on the issue would, in truth, be putting minority religious rights up for a vote. So it would keep passions tempered a bit to keep it non-binding. The vote would merely express public will on the make-up of our publicly funded education system.

And as the ballot is designed to get voters to select first, second and third options, they're not really voting rights up or down, they're just ranking preferences.

If a majority of voters picked one system for all, it would give the government a political mandate to re-visit the status quo it currently doesn't have. The McGuinty-ites did not campaign on re-opening the separate school issue in the last election campaign. If this issue is even to be contemplated, the government would need some kind of a mandate to do so. The plebiscite could provide that.

If it's non-binding, and a majority vote to extend public funding to all religions, but current finances show that's impossible with our current deficits, we can hold off. But it can be a long-term goal as Ontarians have clearly voiced a preference.

I propose this because I believe if Ontarians are given the choice, they'll vote for one public system for all, and not to divide our kids up according to religion. I see it as a way to take the issue out of the politicians' hands and put it in the hands of the people.

3 comments:

kirbycairo said...

While I sympathize with you, I suspect that Ontario voters would not vote for a single public system. For one thing the Catholic church would spend millions to gain the result they want in any vote. It is really difficult to get people to vote for such a change.

I would love to see the end of Catholic schools in Ontario, but I think that the only way that it could happen is if the Province directed by the court that the funding of Catholic schools is discriminatory to other religions. If Ontarians were faced with funding, say, Muslim schools or getting rid of Catholic schools then maybe they would opt for an all public system.

Matt Guerin said...

Thanks, Kirby, for the comment. A couple of problems with your arguments: presumably any plebiscite would have strict spending rules and limits. I'm proposing public funding for each option up to a maximum limit. There would be a restriction on the Catholic church spending "millions" as you put it. It would be quite illegal. (I assume such regulations in a modern democracy like Ontario, I didn't see the need to explicitly state it in my post.)

Secondly, a court will never rule against the current Catholic system because it is protected in the Constitution from any challenge under the Charter. So we are stuck with the current system unless our politicians choose to act. Few parties will propose acting in an election campaign, especially now after 2007's disaster with John Tory, even if it is to propose getting rid of the Catholic system. I'm proposing a sensible way for any government to obtain a political mandate to remove the constitutional protection for Catholic schools (as was done in Newfoundland & Quebec), and unite the two systems into one should voters choose that option. Of course, this is a democracy and if they choose to increase their taxes to support more religious school boards, that's their right too. It would be a fairer system than the current one. Heck, even if Ontarians vote to keep the current system, that would give it some legitimacy it doesn't have today.

Leonard Baak said...

Ontario voters would vote for a single school system, given the chance -- especially if you point out to them that it is either that or greater austerity in other programs of far greater importance (even to Catholics) than religious school funding for a single faith exclusively.

Several polls during the 2007 faith-based election sought the public pulse on the fund all, fund none, or status quo options. Fund none was the most popular option with over 50+% support. Again, that number is bound to grow as status quo proponents consider the effects of austerity on truly programs of far greater importance than Catholic school funding.

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