Ontario’s Catholic elementary schools are quietly opening their doors to students of all faiths, blurring the lines even more between the Catholic and public systems and raising questions about the roles — and need — for both.
Windsor’s Catholic school board became the latest to admit non-Catholics into grade schools in June — discreetly. It warned principals to discuss the new policy “with caution.” Some 82 non-Catholic children already have signed up, good news for a board that has been losing some 500 students a year.
“It’s about having choice in education,” said an elated Karen Fyall, a mother in Kingsville, south of Windsor, whose daughter Skylar will start Grade 6 next week at her local Catholic school under the new policy. She had been denied for two years because she’s not Catholic.
“I don’t want to knock down public schools, but the one thing that’s missing is that spiritual background, the religious tools that help you manage situations in life,” said Fyall, who had to agree her daughter will take part in all religious teaching, something she welcomes.
More than half of Ontario’s 29 Catholic boards now quietly admit non-Catholic children to grade schools, although bigger urban boards like those in the GTA still require non-Catholic elementary students have at least one Catholic parent or sometimes grandparent to enroll.
While Catholic high schools have had to allow students of all faiths ever since Queen’s Park began funding them in 1986, Catholic elementaries have maintained the right to turn others away.
But the growing number of Catholic boards opening their doors to all faiths at all grades has raised concerns about a creeping overlap between Catholic and public schools — as has the fight this summer by a handful of Catholic high school students to opt out of religion courses, the court ruling this spring that lets non-Catholic students skip mass and religious field trips, and Queen’s Park’s insistence that Catholic schools allow gay-straight alliances.
“Why even have a separate school board if the lines are increasingly blurred and the issues increasingly complicated?” asked Mike Schreiner, leader of Ontario’s Green Party, which calls for merging the two school systems to save money and stop financially favouring one religion over others — something for which the United Nations has chided Ontario.
“It’s a human rights issue, an issue of fairness and at a time when the province is facing severe financial issues, a fiscal issue,” said Schreiner. “Why do we have this crazy system where Catholic and public schools are competing for students?”
His is the only party that talks about defunding Catholic schools by amending the Constitution, as Quebec and Newfoundland have done.
However, a grassroots group called Liberals for Learning Together favours merging the two systems as well. Founded a year ago by a handful of federal Liberal staffers, it circulated a petition supporting the idea at the Ontario Liberal convention in March that won signatures from 35 per cent of those attending, said co-founder Steve Lichti.
The idea has found support within 70 of the province’s 107 Liberal riding associations, as well as every active Young Liberals campus club in Ontario. The group plans a town hall on the proposal this fall.
“We believe the public education system divides children along religious lines, is expensive and inefficient,” said Lichti, a Toronto lawyer. “We believe kids learning together helps foster a tolerant, pluralistic and multicultural society.”
Even Michael Barrett, president of the Ontario Public School Boards Association and a defender of Catholic schools’ historic right to exist, warns that open-door policies and the move to opt out of religion class “will have some people asking, what’s the difference?”
“If it’s religious-based education based on Catholic doctrine and you’re blurring the lines to attract more people, you risk losing the reason to have a Catholic system in the first place.”
Barrett said some public school trustees in smaller boards with shrinking enrolments see these new open-door stands as a “blatant recruitment tool.”
Yet Catholic trustees insist they’re not trying to poach students from other boards; inclusive grade schools are just a response to market demand for a system that educates about one-third of Ontario children by weaving religious education into the provincial curriculum.
“It’s not about drawing students away from public schools, it’s about opening the doors of Catholic schools,” said Kathy Burtnyk, president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association.
“We’re here to serve people who choose us. Just look at the enrolments in our secondary schools (by students of all faiths) and you’ll see people want what we deliver,” she said, noting the C.D. Howe Institute has observed that Catholic schools score slightly higher on standardized tests than public schools.
“We have a very distinct role to play in Ontario; we’re different, but we’re not competitive.”
Still, it’s a touchy enough subject that the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board sent an internal memo to staff, obtained by the Star, saying it would not be publicizing the new open-door rule, and principals should discuss it using “utmost caution and discretion.”
If staff was asked whether the goal is to recruit more students, they were instructed to explain the board is “providing faith-based education to members of the community who . . . until now, have been denied. . . . The fact that we’re not making an official announcement demonstrates that we’re not recruiting.”
Ironically, as more non-Catholics enter the system, some students at Catholic high schools want to opt out of taking religion. In Brooklin, Ont., Carolyn Borgstadt, who is Catholic, has fought to get her son with special needs excused from compulsory Grade 12 religion this fall so he can concentrate on the math marks he will need to get into an apprenticeship. She feels it’s too late to switch her son to a public school for the last year of high school.
On Friday, after notifying the board her son had never been baptized and she is not a separate school supporter, Borgstadt learned the Durham Catholic District School Board will excuse him from religion class.
“I’m happy about the decision,” said Borgstadt. “My son struggles with anything with a lot of English, and religion has a lot of English.”
But several Catholic families are also trying to win an exemption from religion class, usually so the student has more time for other subjects. They say the exemption should apply to all students, but Catholic boards disagree.
Midland parent Kyle Naylor runs a website that helps parents like Borgstadt apply for exemptions.
“I’m not anti-Catholic or even anti-religion,” he said, “but we’re the only democracy in the world that funds schools of one religion.”
Stittsville father Leonard Baak has opposed funding Catholic schools ever since his kids were denied a kindergarten spot at their nearby Catholic elementary school because they’re not Catholic. They now travel 80 minutes a day by bus to a public school instead of walking to the nearby Catholic school.
“There’s probably hundreds of thousands of Ontario kids being trucked past Catholic schools,” said Baak, head of the lobby group Oneschoolsystem.org.
However, Burtnyk argued Catholic schools should not be a choice “of convenience. It should be a clear conscientious choice for the whole package — our community of faith.”
Oneschoolsystem.org has asked supporters across the province to hand out flyers this fall outside Catholic schools telling students how to win an exemption from religion class. But Burtnyk wondered, “as a parent, why would you choose our system and then want out of the very cornerstone of what we offer?”
Windsor father Desta Gebreslassi said he is grateful he can now send his kindergarten daughter to a Catholic school, even though he is Greek Orthodox and his wife is Muslim. School, he said, is the perfect place for children to learn “core values,” especially when parents are too busy to teach them themselves.
“Maybe some of us don’t have time to teach the Do’s and Don’ts as much as we’d like. Sometimes I work late, which is the beauty of the Catholic schools; they balance education and spirituality.”
How much more does it cost taxpayers to keep the two systems? A 2012 study prepared by the Federation of Urban Neighborhoods of Ontario pegged savings from a merger of Catholic and public systems at close to $1 billion through cuts to administration, fewer empty classrooms, savings on busing and what it called “economies of scale.”
But Kevin Kobus, executive director of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association, warns there are also costs to dismantling large, historic systems.
“When Mike Harris amalgamated 124 school boards down to 72, it cost $1.1 billion in transitional grants,” said Kobus, noting that the 600,000 Catholic students won’t disappear. Each one will still need a teacher, desk, books and a roof, he said, adding Ontario’s public English high schools are roughly 82 per cent full, while Catholic English high schools are overflowing at 102 per cent.
“If you merge two schools, sure you could get rid of one principal, but with the added numbers you’ll need to hire more vice-principals,” he said. “If you close one school, you’re adding to your busing costs.”
There’s also the “emotional torture on families and a community whenever you close a school,” said Kobus — let alone an entire school system.
“No politician wants that.”
But even defenders of both systems say the shifting sands make the role of each system unclear.
Said Barrett: “Two parallel lines that move together by a single degree will eventually meet.”