Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Back in 2007, you were interviewed by the Toronto Star. In the interview, you were asked (bold) and stated (non-bold) said:
EDUCATION: What would you do to ensure our publicly funded schools can offer quality education to all children in Ontario? Do you favour extending public funding to all faith-based schools?
Universal, quality public education is a right, though it has been under attack for almost 20 years. Massive public investment of $20 billion over 5 years, in a single, secular system open to all irrespective of religion, race, national origin, sexual orientation, etc. is urgent. This means separation of church and school, and in the case of the Separate School system a gradual reduction of funding, and a transition of students, staff, and facilities into the public system. (Toronto Star, 2007)
Some questions come to mind for the secular audience here, possibly, especially with the ongoing religious privileges afforded to the Roman Catholics in this country through the separate, publicly-funded, Roman Catholic School system. How has the universal, quality public education been under attack for almost 30 years now?
Dave McKee: Per capita cuts to public education funding in Ontario date back to the 1970s. But the focused and comprehensive attacks on public education, which I mentioned in the 2007 interview, appeared with the Conservative government of Mike Harris, elected in 1995. These attacks affected the financing, politics and curriculum of public education, but I will only reference the first two here. Notably, the Harris attacks were preceded by a public comment from the Minister of Education (John Snobelen) that the government needed to “bankrupt” and create a “useful crisis” in public education, in order to generate support for its right-wing restructuring.
On the financial side, Harris reduced education funding by $2.3 billion during his first 5 years in office. During this same period, enrollment (full-time equivalent) in Ontario’s public schools grew by about 20,000 students. All of the enrollment growth was in elementary schools, meaning that secondary schools would eventually see an increase as well. The funding cuts, combined with increased enrollment, quickly diminished the classroom environment. Prompted by this decline in the public system, enrollment in private schools jumped by nearly 30,000 during those same 5 years – an increase of more than 35%. The number of private schools increased by a similar figure.
This loss of funding was administered both through actual cuts to provincial grants and, more far-reaching, through changes that the Harris government introduced to the formula for public education funding. Previously, public school boards were largely funded through a levy on municipal property taxes, with additional grants from the provincial government, and so had control over a mechanism to fund local needs. In 1997, Harris moved all education funding to the provincial level. Although much of the money would still be raised through property taxes, the local boards lost all control and became wholly reliant upon provincial grants. These grant formula was based on enrollment, meaning that school boards had no way to budget over the medium-term, let alone for long-term considerations. Large urban boards typically have a more diverse student body than smaller boards, and their budgets include costs relating to issues of settlement, accessibility, equity, languages, etc. As a result, per capita costs for larger urban boards are disproportionately higher than those of smaller boards. The enrollment based funding formula had an immediate and particularly harsh effect on funding of large urban boards.
In terms of the interplay between the public board and the separate (Roman Catholic) board, these two entities, within the same geographic area, essentially had to compete with each other for students, so that they would secure and maintain funding. Successive provincial governments have used this competition to play the separate and public boards against one another, most recently in the area of negotiations with teachers’ unions. The flawed funding formula, which has been maintained ever since by successive Liberal governments in Ontario, has produced a sad cycle for public education – one of underfunding, leading to lower enrollment, leading to further underfunding.
On the political side, the Harris government also introduced sweeping changes to school board governance. In 1997, the number of local boards was reduced from 124 to 722, through forced amalgamation. This led to a sharp decrease in the number of elected school trustees, dropping from 1,900 to 700, and a much larger area for each trustee to represent. Additionally, remuneration for trustees was drastically reduced, from around $40,000 in large urban areas to a mere $5,000 per year.
These changes, which have also been maintained by successive provincial governments, greatly diminished the democratic aspects of public school boards. Fewer working people could run as candidates, since a $5000 stipend meant that they would have to maintain employment elsewhere. The costs of running an election campaign over dramatically enlarged wards (typically involving 100,000 residents, in large urban areas) has noticeably reduced its accessibility to working class candidates. The overall combination of underpaid part-time trustees and huge geographic wards immediately reduced trustees’ to properly serve and engage their constituents.
Over a short period of time, these changes have meant that the profile of school boards, the local democratic forum for public education, has declined very sharply. Boards have become staff-driven entities with less public engagement and input on a wide range of matters relating to the school system.
Also in 1997, the government introduced legislation stipulating that school boards had to provide balanced budgets. Since the provincial government controlled funding, this rule was a way to force local boards to carry out program cuts, sell-off school lands, and increase student fees for basic educational needs. Through this political reform, the provincial government uses school boards to maintain and exacerbate the problems of underfunding.
In the now 33 years since these attacks began, none of the parties represented in the Ontario legislature have consistently or forcefully fought to reverse course. In the face of this inexcusable silence, there is now an acute crisis in public education: 2000 schools have been closed since 1990 and hundreds are currently threatened with closure and sale, there is a $16 billion backlog in school repairs across the province, school shortages and overcrowding mean that children have to be bussed out of their neighbourhoods to find a school that can accommodate them, and reduced staff has meant that violence in schools is increasing.
All of this is avoidable – what is lacking is the political will, at Queen’s Park, to make the necessary changes. Fortunately, there are ongoing grassroots efforts by parents, community organizations, unions, and others including the Communist Party, which are committed to building the required pressure.
Jacobsen: How would a single secular school system be fairer and more democratic?
McKee: In terms of fairness, a single secular system is the basis for ensuring universality and equality of access for all communities within Ontario. The current arrangement provides public funding to one religious community, among many. This only ensures that there will be ongoing and growing inequity – the United Nations Human Rights Committee realized as much in 1999, when it stated that the Ontario government’s practice of funding one religious community was a discriminatory practice.
In terms of democracy, a single secular system would help ensure that decisions regarding publicly funded education are wholly made in the public realm. A current example of this principle being denied within the Catholic system is the area of sexual education.
In 2016, shortly after the Ontario government introduced a long-overdue update of the sex-ed curriculum for public schools, Catholic bishops issued a 34-page letter reminding educators to “present the Catholic Christian version of…sexuality, chastity and marriage.” The letter explicitly stated the Church’s opposition to same-sex relationships and against the recognition of transgendered people. So, we have a situation in which the government and public institutions are taking more concrete action to affirm and respect LGBTQ people, but a huge publicly-funded institution refuses to accept this and actively educates the opposite.
None of this is to say that a single secular system would automatically be profoundly fair and democratic, but such a system certainly provides the most reliable structure to promote and implement such goals in a deliberate, transparent and accountable manner.
Jacobsen: Why is the separation of the place of worship and government important to you, for Canadians generally?
McKee: The Communist Party is of the opinion that religion and the churches of all kinds are fundamentally reactionary, and serve to defend the exploitation of the working class. We are unequivocally in favour of state secularism.
At the same time, however, the Communist Party supports the freedom of conscience and the democratic right of individuals to practice their religions or to have none. We oppose coercion and advocate an approach relying on persuasion and education. In this sense, the Communist party categorically opposes the prohibition on wearing religious symbols by public employees.
As Frederick Engels said, “persecution is the best way to strengthen adverse convictions,” to heighten interest in religion, and to make its actual decline more difficult.
Public institutions must display neutrality towards religions. To be universally accessible, they must be secular – their structure and delivery must not be contingent on a specific religion, or on religious belief and practice in general.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dave.
McKee: Thank you!