‘Pay for it yourself’: Canadian Catholics fighting renewed push for single publicly funded school system

When Leonard Baak’s son hit kindergarten age, his local public school in Stittsville, Ont., was so full it couldn’t even add any portables. So all the other parents in his neighbourhood did the natural thing and dusted off their Roman Catholic baptism certificates and got their children into the local Catholic school.

Mr. Baak was a “churchgoing Christian” but not Catholic — which at least one parent needs to be if a child can be admitted to Catholic elementary. His only other choice was to put his four-year-old on a 45-minute bus ride or enroll him in private school at a hefty price.

He tried everything to get his son to the local Catholic school, even seeing a priest about becoming a Roman Catholic. That process would take a year and he wasn’t willing to wait, especially as his daughter approached school age too.

“I put them in private school. So it took $35,000 [in tuition over two years] to escape an overcrowded situation my Catholic neighbours could escape for free,” he said this week.

“I thought, ‘This is wrong, I should not have to do this for access to greater education. I pay as much tax as they do.’”

So began Mr. Baak’s lobby for one publicly funded school system in Ontario. Now, the decade-old movement is gaining steam in light of recent changes in publicly funded Catholic school systems, especially high schools non-Catholics can attend.

Another victory came this week, when an Ontario Superior Court judge ruled Oliver Erazo, a parent in Brampton, Ont., had been unlawfully denied an exemption that would free his high school-age son from attending mass, religion classes and other religion-related events.

A recent campaign by the Ontario Catholic Trustees Association has also drawn criticism for appearing to promote Catholic schools in the province as superior publicly funded schools.

Then there are the broader societal shifts that have found their way into education legislation across Canada and clearly do not jibe with Catholic teachings.

Monday, the Alberta legislature rejected a bill that would make it mandatory for schools to allow students to start gay-straight alliances (GSAs), but its sponsor, Liberal MLA Kent Hehr, believes it has enough public support to succeed in the near future.

Last fall, one Alberta Catholic school board rejected renewed calls to let students be immunized against HPV in school, because it feared the vaccines would tempt children into sexual activity.

As enrollment numbers in public schools across the country continue to decline and public opinion remains staunchly split on the issue, proponents of defunding the Catholic school system believe they are finally on the brink of a breakthrough, even in the face of a strong contingent of Catholic system defenders.

“It’s an issue we’re thinking a lot about, the future of Catholic public school funding, and I think Catholics themselves are thinking about it too,” said Justin Trottier, a spokesman for the atheist Centre for Inquiry.

“I think they’re witnessing the dilution of the Catholic identity within their own school system.”

He points to the tussles over GSAs in Ontario and the Erazo case show Catholic schools “don’t have full authority” to ensure their students get a religious education.

“If I were in the shoes of these Catholic trustees, I’d be kind of concerned that at some point the parents and the Catholic ratepayers are not going to say, ‘Why are we continuing to support a system where we don’t have the kind of controls we could have if we opted to go the private school route?’”

While Catholics — whose right to a separate, publicly funded system is enshrined in the Constitution — declare their faith on their property tax forms, thus supporting their education system, taxpayers of all or no creeds pay for publicly funded schools.

Though some parents send their children for religious reasons, most just want their children to go to a good school — one that is close by, has good teachers and a solid track record, Mr. Baak said. He believes a one-school system makes financial sense in Ontario, a province that is paying $11-billion a year to service its debt.