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Friday, October 9, 2015

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Debate revived over faith-based school funding

Tags: Jewish learning

TORONTO —  An announcement by the province of Saskatchewan that it will extend public funding to private religious schools has reinvigorated calls by the Jewish community in Ontario to have this province follow suit.

The Dec. 21 announcement by Education Minister Donna Harpauer applied to “qualified independent schools” that adhere to “a strict set of criteria to be eligible for funding of 50 per cent of the provincial per-student average.”

Ira Walfish, chair of Ontario’s Multifaith Coalition for Equal Funding of Faith Based Schools, has been pushing for a similar arrangement for Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and other religious schools in Ontario for almost a decade.

He said he and his supporters in the Jewish community are not done pressuring Premier Dalton McGuinty on the issue and are feeling emboldened by Saskatchewan’s stance.

“Obviously we still believe strongly that this is the direction Ontario should be taking. Providing parents with choice, be it a public school or a Catholic school or a Jewish, Muslim, Greek Orthodox school etcetera… will ultimately both improve Ontario’s school system and remedy a longstanding discriminatory practice, providing funding to one religious group, Catholics, and to exclude all other religions,” Walfish said.

In order for religious schools in Saskatchewan to qualify, they must, among other things, participate in the province’s student assessment program; employ only certified teachers; teach the provincial curriculum; operate as an incorporated non-profit organization; submit financial statements; have been in operation for at least two consecutive years; facilitate inspection and supervision by ministry officials, and comply with ministry policy and directives.

Saskatchewan’s Education Act allows for the registration of “independent schools” by private groups or organizations in order to give parents the ability to “educate their children in accordance with their conscientious beliefs and provide them with a legitimate exemption from attendance at a public or separate school,” according to the province.

An estimated 2,000 Jews live in Saskatchewan, but there are currently no Jewish day schools in the province.

In 2001, the Tory government under then-premier Mike Harris introduced a tax credit for private school tuition, which the McGuinty government repealed in 2003.

The funding issue was central to the 2007 Ontario election, when then-Conservative leader John Tory made the promise to fund faith-based schools a major part of his campaign. It was seen as a key reason he lost to McGuinty, who was vocal in his opposition to the idea.

The Constitution Act of 1867 enshrined public funding for Catholic schools in Ontario in order to protect its Catholic minority. The Ontario government has said it has no plans to change its position or open up a constitutional debate on the matter.

Gary Wheeler, a spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Education, told The CJN the subject is closed.

In an e-mail, he said the government “recognizes the right of parents to choose alternative forms of education for their children. However, our clear focus and our government’s priority continues to be introducing measures that significantly improve the publicly funded system. The government remains committed to providing an excellent education system that is open to children throughout Ontario. We will continue to meet our constitutional obligations with respect to Roman Catholic schools.”

Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), said his organization will continue to advocate for faith-based school funding.

“We’re interested in provinces demonstrating equity in terms of funding and we do have this as one of the issues on our agenda,” Fogel said, adding that “there could be any number of ways to approach it” in Ontario.

He said that although CIJA understands that the McGuinty government isn’t willing to revisit the situation “there may be other formulae that can be used, or other considerations that would allow for… the same kind of [funding considerations], but not in direct allocations to Jewish schools.”

CIJA intends to approach the Ontario government to discuss the issue this year as part of its “responsibility to our community,” Fogel,” Fogel said.

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