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by Samuele Trosow

There is a pressing need to consolidate Ontario’s separate and public school systems.

Long ignored by most politicians, this controversial idea deserves a fresh discussion, especially now, with the provincial government imposing cuts to the education system. Consolidation will result in significant cost savings, and will do so in a manner that doesn’t threaten existing services or facilities. It will eliminate service duplication, and eradicate enrolment competition between the systems.

And contrary to a widely held perception, denominational schools are not necessarily constitutionally protected, as demonstrated in Québec and Newfoundland-Labrador.

Huge potential cost savings
A 2012 discussion paper from the Federation of Urban Neighbourhoods estimates annual savings between $1.269- $1.594 billion by merging the systems.

The report looked at several factors, including savings from grants for administration, capital costs, reducing under-utilization and transportation costs.

The Canadian Secular Alliance’s 2015 pre-budget submission to Ontario’s Ministry of Finance, stated that while “the exact savings realized depend on what the amalgamated school system that would replace the status quo would look like, the savings under any reasonable set of assumptions amount to hundreds of millions of dollars per year.” The alliance also pointed to various duplication costs .

While the estimates of cost savings may vary depending on how consolidation is implemented, a verifiable fiscal analysis should be undertaken.

Eliminating competition for students
There is currently enrolment competition between the two systems as separate schools seek to enroll non-Catholics. This competition is unhealthy, inconsistent with the purposes for denominational schools, and is a waste of school resources.

Waterloo School Board Trustee John Hendry argues that attempts to enrol non- Catholic students show that the separate school system is facing difficulty surviving as a “faithbased education system solely with Catholic students.”

Similar concerns were discussed in a 2016 Globe and Mail report showing that Ontario separate boards increasingly enroll non-Catholic children and “siphoning students from the public stream as the two systems vie for provincial funding.”

Single-school, rural and inner-city communities face particular risk for school closures given Ontario’s current funding formula. It has become a numbers game when it comes to the future of many of these schools.

It’s a challenge to keep schools running, and by extension keep a community viable, when students are channelled into competing schools. While a community may be able to keep its school open if all local children attend that school, splitting the student body into parallel systems makes the risk for closure much greater.

Ontario should follow Québec, NL’s lead
It’s often argued that consolidation is impermissible because separate schools are constitutionally protected. While Section 93 of the 1867 Constitution continued existing schools’ denominational rights, it could be easily amended.

The 1982 Constitution Act, Section 43 provides that where a provision applies to one or more, but not all provinces, it can be amended by resolution of the provincial assembly and federal Parliament. Québec and Newfoundland have already invoked this clause, and Ontario can as well.

University of Windsor law professor Richard Moon, wrote that in 1867 the dominant common school system in Ontario had a clear Protestant ethos. The protection for denominational rights ensured that members of the minority Catholic community would not be pressured to send their children to Protestant schools.

But Moon argues the “character of the public school system in Ontario has changed dramatically since 1867, a change that has been accelerated by the Charter of Rights in 1982.”

Moon’s analysis is shared by Queens University law professor Bruce Pardy. He reviewed the amending procedures needed for consolidation and concluded:

“Any Ontario politician who claims that there is a Constitutional guarantee to Catholic schools that binds the government is being disingenuous. The only thing that sits in the way of fixing a discriminatory and unfair constitutional anachronism is the reluctance of Ontario political parties to do so.”

The time is now
Before imposing cuts like the recent suspension of the building repair fund and closing more schools, the government should initiate a discussion about how consolidation could proceed.

A goal of consolidation should be to minimize disruption to existing programs and services. While discussions will emphasize cost savings, the social costs of separate systems should also be considered. For example, how would consolidation impact the travel times to schools for students, especially in rural areas?

It is no longer viable to dismiss the issue on the grounds of Constitutional entrenchment. It is clear that the law can be easily changed through a resolution at Queen’s Park and in the Federal Parliament.

All that’s truly needed is the political will to take on a difficult issue and move forward. WL

(This is an edited version of the original article which appeared in The Conversation at merge-ontarios-two-schoolsystems- 99922)

This article appeared in the Western Law 2018 Alumni Magazine.
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