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The era of two school systems in Ontario should be riding into the sunset. There are enormous cost savings and community benefits to be had by merging the public and separate school systems. A school bus is seen here in Markham, Ont. (Shutterstock)

It’s time to merge Ontario’s two school systems

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 and serious policy discussion — especially now, with the new Ontario government contemplating cuts to the education system. School consolidation will result in significant and recurring cost savings, and will do so in an equitable manner that does not threaten existing services or facilities.

Consolidation of school systems will save money by eliminating service duplication, and it will eradicate enrolment competition between the two systems.

And contrary to a widely held perception, denominational schools are not necessarily protected by Canada’s Constitution, as previously demonstrated in the provinces of Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Québec.

Huge potential cost savings

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

The organization, a province-wide coalition of community and neighbourhood associations, looked at several factors, including savings from grants for administration, capital costs, reducing under-utilization and transportation costs.

In the Canadian Secular Alliance’s 2015 pre-budget submission to Ontario’s Ministry of Finance, the organization 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 the duplication costs arising from “operating schools well below enrolment capacity and otherwise unnecessary student transportation distances.”

While the estimates of cost savings may vary depending on how the consolidation would be implemented, a fiscal analysis needs to be undertaken in a non-partisan and verifiable manner.

Eliminating competition for students

There is currently student enrolment competition between the separate and public systems as separate school boards try to woo non-Catholic kids. This competition is unhealthy, inconsistent with the purposes for which denominational schools were first established and a waste of school system resources.

John Hendry, a trustee with the Waterloo Region District School Board, argues that attempts to enrol non-Catholic students show that the separate school system is facing significant difficulty surviving as a “faith-based education system solely with Catholic students.”

Catholic schools in Ontario are trying to attract students who aren’t Catholic for funding purposes. (Shutterstock)

These same concerns were discussed in a 2016 Globe and Mail report showing that Ontario separate school boards are increasingly enrolling 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 educational funding formula. It has become purely a numbers game when it comes to the continuance and future of many of these schools.

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

Ontario should follow Québec, NL’s lead

As mentioned, it’s often argued that consolidation is not permitted because the rights of separate schools to maintain their status are constitutionally protected. While Section 93 of the 1867 Constitution provides for the continuation of the separate schools’ denominational rights, it could be easily amended.

The 1982 Constitution Act, which included the Charter of Rights, updated the amendment procedure for the 1867 Constitution. Section 43 provides that where a provision applies to one or more, but not all, of the provinces, it can be amended by resolution of the provincial assembly and the federal Parliament. Québec and Newfoundland have already invoked this clause, and Ontario can do the same.

In an opinion piece for CBC News, Richard Moon, a University of Windsor law professor, writes that Section 93 was drafted at a time when the dominant public or common school system in Ontario had a clear Protestant ethos. The protection for denominational rights ensured that members of the minority Roman Catholic community would not be pressured to send their children to the Protestant schools.

But Moon points out that 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 of these changing conditions is shared by Queens University law professor Bruce Pardy, who walked through the procedures needed to amend the Constitution to permit consolidation.

Unlike the more complex process for amending other constitutional provisions, consolidation would only require the passage of a resolution by the Ontario legislature and the federal Parliament. Pardy concludes:

“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 harmful cuts such as the recent suspension of the building repair fund and closing more schools, the Ontario government should initiate a discussion about how consolidation could proceed.

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

Hopefully the matter of school consolidation will not become yet another partisan issue. All Ontario parties should cooperate, and all levels of government should be considered in the analysis.

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 simple 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.

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