John Tory's pledge to fund private religious schools would have a serious, negative long-term impact on Hamilton.
By Adrian Duyzer
Published September 28, 2007
The topic of religious education has been by far the most talked about issue in Ontario's election season. Although there are more pressing issues, religion is controversial, and controversy sells newspapers.
It's not just that, though. Provincial funding of private religious schools would have a significant long-term impact on the province and its cities.
To anticipate those readers about to protest, "But the province already funds these schools, because the Catholic system is fully funded!", it's worth pointing out the differences between the Catholic system and private religious schools.
The Catholic public school system, like the non-Catholic public school system, is divided into school boards. The Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board (HWCDSB) has 53 elementary schools and seven secondary schools, serving 30,500 students in the region.
Catholic school boards like HWCDSB are large and unified, resembling non-Catholic school boards in their operating budgets and the number of students attending. This has a lot to do with the monolithic nature of the Catholic Church, which is the largest organized religious body in the world, comprising approximately one sixth of the world's population.
Private religious schools, on the other hand, are fragmented, with even small sects creating their own schools. Many of these schools are Protestant Christian, which is not a unified branch of Christianity.
Private religious schools tend to be scattered across large geographical areas. Most of Hamilton's private Christian schools are in rural areas or on the outskirts of the city.
This may be because property is cheaper in those locations or because private religious schools benefit from having their children separated from the rest of the community.
It isn't difficult to predict what would happen to religious schools if they were publicly funded. Existing religious schools would grow larger. The number of religious schools would increase, as it would suddenly become affordable and perhaps even profitable for even small religious groups to open schools.
Enrolment in public schools would drop. The more successful religious schools became, the more the public system would decline. This, in turn, would have a ripple effect across cities:
Years ago, friends of mine from Ann Arbor, Michigan, took me on a "Detroit ghetto tour" - a drive on a snowy winter's night through some of Detroit's poorest neighbourhoods.
One peculiar feature about the streets we drove on jumped out at me: the preponderance of tiny "churches" on streets otherwise populated by hair and nail salons and grimy restaurants.
I put "churches" inn quotation marks on purpose, since they appeared to be nothing more than ordinary houses and storefronts that had a sign (or just paint on a window) advertising places of worship with names like "Lucinda's House of Jesus".
I asked my guides why there were so many small churches everywhere. They explained that churches were exempt from property taxes, creating a powerful incentive for people with few economic opportunites to put a sign on their homes and invite people over on Sundays.
This taught me that when religions are given special treatment, the results can be unexpected. In this case, the results weren't just unexpected, they were also strongly negative for a city with a declining industrial base already desperate for tax revenue (sound familiar?)
Ultimately, the fairest solution, and the one that makes the most economic, environmental, and urbanist sense, would be to unify the secular public school system with the Catholic public school system.
With no major political party willing to take up that gauntlet, however, the best alternative we can hope for is the status quo, because John Tory's pledge to fund private religious schools is bad for cities like Hamilton.