Conversation with Reva Landau – Co-Founder, Open Public Education Now

Image Credit: PxHere.

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Based on research, $1.25 to $1.6 billion could be saved if we have a single public school system based on two languages. But we continue to have a separate Catholic school system. It is expensive to have a religious separate school system. How is this prejudiced against the non-Catholic majority of the Canadian population?

Reva Landau: Education is generally a provincial responsibility in Canada, and you have to talk about provinces, not Canada. Only three provinces, Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Alberta give public funding to separate schools.  Some provinces such as New Brunswick, give no public funding to any private schools, including religious schools.  This does not discriminate against the non-Catholic population in their province.  Other provinces, such as Quebec, have a non-denominational public school system, and fund any other schools that meet certain criteria (including non-religious schools) at a lesser rate.  This also does not discriminate against the non-Catholic population of these provinces [though personally I prefer public funding of only one public non-denomination (two-language) system].  Alberta and Saskatchewan fund separate Catholic schools at a comparable level to public schools but also fund other schools that meet certain criteria (including non-religious schools) at a lesser level.  This discriminates against non-Catholics to some extent.  I will speak only about Ontario because that is the only province on which I have done extensive research and its discrimination is the most egregious.

Only Ontario fully funds Catholic separate schools at the same, or a greater rate, than they fund the public non-denominational school system, and does not fund any other religious or philosophical school system at all.  This discriminates against the non-Catholic population in several ways.  Parents who want their child to have an Anglican, Baptist, Buddhist, atheist, etc. education have to pay for their schooling entirely out of their own pocket, as well as pay through residential property and other taxes for a publicly-funded school system they do not use.

If Ontario separate schools were paid for entirely through the residential property taxes of separate school supporters (which they are not), it would still be unfair because non-Catholics who want their child to have a particular religious (or humanitarian, etc.) education have to pay residential property taxes to the public school system and pay for their child’s schooling themselves.  But in fact only less than 8% of the operational and capital funding for Catholic separate schools comes from the residential property taxes of separate school supporters.

About 72% comes from general provincial revenues, that is from the taxes of all, Catholic or non-Catholic, religious or non-religious.  About 15% comes from the property taxes of businesses (they cannot control where their taxes go) and 5% from other sources.  So non-Catholics are being forced to fund a particular religious system with whose policies on, for example, abortion or the right of gays to marry, they might not agree.

The current Ontario system also discriminates against non-Catholics because of the separate school system, for several reasons, receives more in funding from general revenues per student, than the public school system so funding the separate school system is costing non-Catholics more in taxes than if we had only one public non-denominational school system.

The current Ontario system discriminates against non-Catholic parents because Catholics, as of right, can send their child to a separate school or a public school.  Non-Catholics at the elementary school level, can ask for their child to go to a separate school (because it is closer, or newer, etc.) but they do not have the right to send their child.  Many non-Catholic parents would not want their child to go to a separate school even if it was closer, and no parent should have to choose between their child going to a school nearer them or their child having a non-denominational public school education, but non-Catholic parents do not even have their choice.  Some elementary separate schools admit non-Catholics if they have room, some do not.  At the high school level, all students have the right to attend separate schools and to be exempted from religious courses, though some boards are more co-operative than others in granting these exemptions.

The current Ontario system also discriminates against non-Catholics for teaching positions but that is covered in the next question.

Jacobsen: Catholic schools require teachers to be Catholic. How is this prejudiced against the non-Catholic population in Canada, especially the teachers?

Landau: See my point under Question 1 about education in Canada being generally under provincial control so can’t speak about discrimination in Canada, just by province. Again, I am talking only about Ontario.

Catholic separate schools can legally discriminate against non-Catholic teachers. The application form for Catholic Boards requires a Personal Reference Letter from a priest.  Catholic School Boards may occasionally hire non-Catholics if they cannot find any Catholic with the qualifications to teach, for example, calculus but they will never become a head of department, superintendent, etc. [See (Daly v. Ontario  (Attorney General), 44 O.R. (3d) 349 for a court case upholding separate school right to discriminate].  Some boards also require educational assistants and library assistants to be Catholics.

So Catholics, who are about 31% of the population of Ontario, have access to 100% of teaching jobs.  Non-Catholics, who are about 69 % of the population of Ontario, have access to only 69% of the jobs.  Catholics have about twice the chance of non-Catholics of getting a teaching job in Ontario.

Jacobsen: How can the Ontario government abolish separate school funding, completely?

Landau:   Ontario could pass a resolution through the Provincial Parliament asking for the federal government to amend the Constitution Act, 1867, so subsections (1) to (4) of s.93 of the Constitution Act, 1867 which guarantee the rights separate schools had in 1867 in Confederation no longer apply to Ontario.  Quebec did this in 1997 and within 7 months of Quebec’s resolution the Constitution Act amendment had gone through Parliament and been proclaimed into law by the Governor General.  Newfoundland also abolished its requirement for separate school funding in the same way.  Quebec now has one public (two-language) school system.

Jacobsen: How much more money do separate schools receive in operational funding from the provincial revenues?

Landau: From 2002-03 to 2014-15, separate schools received about $1,500 more in operating revenues per student per year than public schools (about $1,600 more from 2011-12 to 2014-15).  They received about $1,700 more per student per year in combined operational and capital funding per year from 2011-12 to 2014-15.  I am using the figures from 2002-03 to show this is a steady persistent pattern, using the recent figures to show this pattern continues, and using the combined operating and capital figures to show it is not that public schools somehow receive more in capital grants.

Jacobsen: Those who support public schools also support separate schools through grants. The separate schools received almost $1600 more per student per annum. How is this economic privilege for religious schools still extant?

Landau: There are two main reasons.  One is that the three main political parties keep on saying: “it is a complex constitutional issue about which we can do nothing”.  They ignore that Quebec abolished funding for separate schools in 1997 by a resolution through the Quebec National Assembly (or Provincial Parliament) asking for the federal government to amend the Constitution Act, 1867 so subsections 93(1) to 93(4) no longer applied to Quebec.  Within 7 months the amendment had gone through the House of Commons, the Senate, and been proclaimed into law by the Governor-General.  Ontario could do the same thing.  It would be even easier because Quebec has set an example for us.  But most people don’t know this so they just accept the excuses of the three main political parties/

The second reason is most people don’t realize how much the current system costs us.  They say Catholics pay for separate schools through residential property taxes.  I know residential property taxes cover less than 8% of the operational costs (and none of the capital costs) but most people don’t.  Separate school supporters say we would need the same number of teachers and school supplies, ignoring all the administrative costs which our duplicate system incur.   Even if you look at the cost of transportation, separate schools spend way more per student busing students because they have fewer students over the same area.  Same goes for trustees and superintendents, and schools not fully utilized in both systems.  As people have commented, suppose we had two fire departments, one which served Catholics and hired Catholic firefighters, and another one which served everyone else, and hired firefighters of all religions.  Think of all the duplicate administrative costs.  The Federation of Urban Neighbourhoods of Ontario did a study in 2012 which estimated that 1.25 to 1.6 billion dollars would be saved yearly if funding for separate schools were eliminated but most people don’t know about it.

Jacobsen: Circa 1867 only 25% of Catholic students, or 5% of all students, went to separate Catholic publicly funded schools, but at the present, 31% of all students attend these publicly funded separate Catholic schools. How did this come to be? How can this be reversed?

Landau: About 25% to 30% of all Catholic students went to separate schools in 1867.  This was about 5% of the student population.  First of all, only about 15% of the school population was Catholic in 1867.  Now it is about 31%.  That is one difference.  But the biggest difference is the funding.  In 1867, separate schools received only about 62% to 66% of the funding per student as public schools.  There were several reasons for this but two important ones.  First of all, public schools received funding from the local municipalities.  About 20% of their funding came from local municipalities.  But municipalities did not contribute to separate school funding.  Secondly, property owners could only direct their rates to separate schools if they swore an affidavit saying they wanted to contribute to separate schools.  An incorporated business cannot swear an affidavit.  So while owners of small businesses could direct their taxes to a separate school, incorporated businesses, of course, cannot swear affidavits and could not direct their taxes to separate schools.  There were other reasons, but these were the main two explaining why separate schools had 62% to 66% of the funding per student as public schools.

Catholic parents, like non-Catholic parents, wanted their children to have a good education.  They realized that in general children would receive a better education at public schools, partly because of the funding, but also because they would be as Dr. Ryerson, the Superintendent of Education,  put it, measuring themselves against the majority and not receiving an isolated, inferior education.

So what has changed?  As I said, now there is a larger percent of Catholics in the Ontario population (about 31% are Catholics) but I do not think that is the main reason.  Ontario separate schools were funded at a lower level than public schools for many years.  Various changes were made such as allowing incorporated businesses to estimate the percent of their shareholders who were Catholic and contributing to public and separate schools on that proportion but it made little difference.

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, it appeared Ryerson’s prediction that separate schools would fade away because of their poorer tax base was coming true.  Separate schools had to set higher mill rates (education tax rate on property) which alienated Catholic ratepayers or they matched the public school mill rates and had lower salaries, less qualified staff, higher pupil-teacher ratios and narrower programs.  Most chose the latter. In Toronto, up to 50% of Catholics were in public schools.

But in 1963 Premier Robarts (Conservative Party) announced the Ontario Foundation Tax Plan.  This Plan had a commendable goal of helping poorer boards, often rural.  But by treating separate school boards as poor boards like any other poor board, it greatly increased their funding and Robarts is credited by many with saving the separate school system.  Unqualified staff were replaced with qualified staff, etc.

There were other steps that increased funding for separate schools.  In 1978, funding was greatly increased for grades 9 and 10 in separate schools.  In 1985, grades 11-13 which had not been funded for separate schools, were funded.  In 1997, the Fewer School Boards Act and the Education Quality Improvement Act changed the entire basis of funding of all school boards.  While its intention may have been (or not been) to give students the same level of funding based on their needs regardless of where they lived, the result was to greatly increase funding for separate schools.  Businesses were forced to direct their property taxes on a per capita basis to the public and separate school boards in their area.  The owners could be Anglican, atheist, Sikh, etc.  It made no difference.

As separate schools raised less per student in residential property taxes, they were given more funding per student from the provincial government in general revenues to make up the difference.  As separate schools generally have fewer students over the same area as public schools, they are given more money in administrative grants to pay for busing, administration, etc.

So now, unlike 1867 when separate schools received only 62% to 66% as much per capita as public schools, they receive more per student yearly than public schools.  And this is even though public schools have in general more students who have English as a second language or special needs.   So it is not surprising, aside from any other reason such as priests pressuring parents to send their children to separate schools, or claims by groups such as the Fraser Institute that separate schools have better results (which they generally don’t especially if the number of ESL and special needs students are taken into consideration), that Catholic parents send their children to the better-funded and often newer schools.

The only way to reverse this is to stop funding for separate schools altogether or reduce the funding they receive.  OPEN’s legal challenge will try both these strategies.

Jacobsen: What can Canadians in their municipalities, provinces or territories, and across the nation do to either eliminate the separate publicly funded school systems, merge them with the regular public school system, or defund of them for those that don’t want them?

Landau: Again, we have to talk about provinces, not Canada, as I made clear in Question 1.  In Ontario, Canadians should donate to the legal challenge by OPEN (One Public Education Now) at https://open.cripeweb.org/aboutOpen.html .  We welcome donations from across Canada.  To make it clear, we do not want to “merge” the separate and the public school system.  The physical buildings might remain, but there would be only one publicly-funded non-denominational two-language school system.  Any teachers hired in the future would be hired as they are currently hired in the public school system, without a preference for any religion (or no religion).  Teachers would no longer spend about 11% to 13% of the school day teaching the Catholic religion.  Any teaching about religion would be based on the principle that no religious or philosophical outlook (including atheism, humanitarianism, etc.) should be promoted as superior.  Students would go to the closest publicly-funded school, which would all be public.

The three main political parties, the Conservatives, Liberals, and the NDP all claim it is a “constitutional issue” about which they can do nothing.  People in Ontario could vote for the Green Party, which is the only party that wants to stop funding separate schools.  They could go to public meetings in the run-up to the June 2018 election and ask all candidates if they would support a resolution similar to Quebec’s, asking for the federal government to pass a resolution saying s.93(1)-(4) no longer apply to Ontario, and say they will not vote for a candidate that does not support this resolution.  But I think given that the three major parties all support the status quo, that donating to OPEN (One Public Education Now) is the best strategy for Ontario.

Alberta and Saskatchewan may have different strategies, but someone from these provinces would be better able to comment.  I know that in theory separate schools are funded at approximately the same level as public schools in these provinces and private religious or non-religious schools that follow required rules get funding at a lower level but someone from these provinces would be better able to describe how it works in practice and what the best strategies for these provinces is.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Reva.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen founded In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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