Is it time to merge the Ontario school systems?
Ontario could save more than $1.25 billion per year by merging its public and Catholic school systems, according to one report. (Pixabay)
Ryan Flanagan, CTVNews.ca
Published Thursday, July 26, 2018 11:41AM EDT
Proponents of merging Ontario’s public and Catholic school systems are urging the province to give serious consideration to the idea, even as the government says it has no interest in doing so.
The Ontario government has funded Catholic schools since Confederation. Most other provinces have either moved away from publicly funded schools for religious minorities or never permitted them in the first place, although a number of Catholic and Protestant schools remain in existence in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Debate over the issue has resurfaced this week following the publication of an article on the subject by two professors at Western University in London, Ont.
Bill Irwin and Samuel Trosow argue in the article that combining Ontario’s two largest school systems – or a bigger merger also involving French-language education – would result in significant savings, which could be attractive to the province’s newly installed Progressive Conservative government, given its stated goals.
“It’s really clear that the new government is interested in saving money,” Trosow told CTVNews.ca. “They could save a lot more money by consolidating the two school systems. At the very least, they need to look at that.”
The article spread fast via social media, bringing Irwin and Trosow’s argument to a far bigger audience than they ever expected to find. In less than four days, they say, the original version of their piece has been read by more than 20,000 people.
“This has gotten huge. I think people all over the province are talking about this now,” Trosow said. “The public is way ahead of the politicians on this issue.”
The issue has made waves in the public consciousness before. A 2016 poll from Forum Research found that a majority of Ontarians supported ending the flow of government money to Catholic schools. When the province sought budget advice from its citizens the same year, nixing Catholic school funding was one of the most common suggestions.
Politicians, however, have been unwilling to touch the idea of merging the school systems. The PCs, Liberals and NDP all said during the campaign that they had no interest in shaking up the status quo on the issue. (Green Party leader Mike Schreiner, who became the first member of his party ever to be elected to Queen’s Park, has long been in favour of moving Ontario to a single school system.)
The new provincial government appeared to remain unequivocal on the issue when asked for its position by CTVNews.ca.
“We do not support the amalgamation of the separate school boards,” a spokesperson for Education Minister Lisa Thompson said in an email. “This is not an issue that we will be revisiting.”
Irwin and Trosow say not even considering the idea would be a mistake for any government, citing a 2012 paper that found a merger would save Ontario’s education system at least $1.25 billion per year.
“We’re not even having the conversation. Why? I think it is a worthy conversation,” Irwin said.
In addition to the financial savings, Irwin says combining public and Catholic schools could help preserve communities that have lost or could be on the verge of losing their only schools.
Rural and remote parts of the province have seen an outsized impact from school closures in recent years, due in large part to declining enrolments making continued operation of schools for ever-smaller student bodies unfeasible.
Irwin’s research has found that parents affected by those closures prefer not to send their children on long bus rides to neighbouring communities, even if that is the only way to keep them in the same school system.
“We’re seeing parents now choosing to, if a public school closes, move their children to a separate school or even a private school to keep them in the community,” he said.
Another issue brought on by school closures, Irwin says, is that rural or remote communities that lose their only schools immediately become less attractive to families with children looking to move. With fewer children in town, it becomes harder for the community to save itself.
Putting all of Ontario’s schools under the same umbrella would also end the situation that sees school boards competing against each other for government funding, Irwin said. Ontario funds school boards based on enrolment figures, which motivates many school boards to spend money on marketing and other recruitment-related activities that would be unnecessary under a single-board system.
Advocates for Catholic education have argued that the savings from a merger might not be as significant as has been estimated, and that ending Catholic education would lead to a mess of school boundary changes that would split up many existing school communities.
Trosow says he hopes the merger proposal will have enough steam to become a significant discussion point during October’s school board elections, noting that cost-cutting at the provincial level could leave school boards feeling unexpected pressures.
“These individual cuts which are coming out of Queen’s Park one at a time are really damaging to the schools,” he said.
The government announced earlier this month that it would eliminate a $100-million fund for school renovations as part of its dismantling of the province’s cap-and-trade system.