Critics of a provincial Progressive Conservative party promise to publicly fund religious schools say the plan will only further entrench homophobia.
Conservative leader John Tory made the promise in June as part of the party’s platform for October’s provincial election. Unlike the Conservative governments of Mike Harris and Ernie Eves, which wanted to provide tax credits to parents who sent their children to private religious schools, Tory’s plan would provide money directly to the schools.
Tory says it’s a question of not singling out Catholic schools for funding but also of bringing private religious schools under control.
“I really believe we’ll be better off if we include these people in the public school system,” Tory told Xtra on Aug 10. “One can’t be sure how close or how far these people are from what we expect. These schools will have to follow all rules that apply to public schools.”
But queer groups like the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario (CLGRO) worry that the plan will require taxpayers to support schools run by religious organizations that believe homosexuality is a sin.
“CLGRO intends to make the Conservative policy an issue in the election, opposing it as an extremely bad thing that supports the perpetuation of homophobia,” says the organization’s Tom Warner.
Tory says the plan could cost up to $400 million if every faith-based private school in the province is funded. He estimates the number at about 100, with about 53,000 students.
“It is not my contemplation to set up another school board for this,” says Tory. “I think we have to develop the model of an associated school.”
Tory stresses that schools receiving public money will be required to follow the provincial curriculum.
According to the Ontario Ministry of Education, apart from the funding, Tory’s proposal does not differ greatly from the restrictions in place now.
In an interview earlier this year, education ministry spokesperson Patricia MacNeil said that any private school that currently wants to grant its students government-recognized secondary school diplomas must follow the official provincial curriculum. But MacNeil says that even those that do are free to teach whatever they want above and beyond the curriculum.
“In private schools that offer secondary school diplomas, we will go in and do inspections to ensure that their curriculum is in line,” she says. “But we only deal with the curriculum.”
Warner says that the provincial curriculum does little to teach tolerance of queers.
“There will be some discussion maybe in classes dealing with families and same-sex relationships,” he says. “But I would be astounded if there’s any more.”
Tory says he is not considering revising the curriculum for greater inclusivity.
“I’m a strong proponent of human rights,” he says. “How and what you teach has to be respectful of human rights. That’s what the curriculum does.”
The schools will also be required to employ teachers who have received their credentials from the Ontario College of Teachers, as diploma-granting private religious schools are now.
Tory says there are adequate safeguards in place to protect against homophobia.
“Where these people are teaching contrary to the human rights code, there are avenues of complaint, such as the Human Rights Commission,” he says.
A spokesperson for the Ontario Human Rights Commission could not find a single case of a complaint being filed against a private religious school, although complaints have been filed against public and Catholic schools.
Tory also says that the religious schools will be required to follow the province’s code of conduct, and probably an “associated” public school board’s equity policy.
Warner says that even if the religious schools are required to follow equity policies or the province’s code of conduct, it will be meaningless.
“The Toronto board says that it has a really detailed equity policy that includes sexual orientation, but very little is actually done, especially around protecting students,” he says.
Warner adds that the province’s code of conduct does specifically mention sexual orientation, but only requires schools to “respect and treat everyone fairly.”
“The wording of the policy is so general that even the religious right people would be able to state that they treat queer people with respect and they treat them fairly, even though they view that as a sin and that you should remain celibate until heterosexually married and you should try to cure yourself,” says Warner. “I think they would argue that would fall within respect and treating fairly.”
Tory says he has not considered putting more funding into the enforcement of school boards’ equity policies or the code of conduct.
“This issue per se of money for enforcement of equity policies has never been raised with me,” he says. “I’m not one of those politicians who’s going to say yes just because you raise it now.”
Tory also says he is not familiar with the Toronto Public School Board’s Triangle Program, which provides a safe space for queer students to learn. He says he has no plans to expand the program either within Toronto or on a province-wide basis.
“It’s not something I’ve contemplated before,” he says. “I’ve never heard of it.”
But Tory says his party is promising an additional $800 million in school funding in the first year of government, rising to $2.4 billion in the fourth year. He says some of that money would be spent at the discretion of school boards.