Our day school and broader Jewish educational system in Ontario is at a precipice. If we do not take action now, we risk losing the foundation on which our community was built and for which it has been recognized for more than a century. Worse, we risk losing the foundation on which the connection to our peoplehood has rested for generations.
We must act to hold that system close, refine it, strengthen it and ensure its vitality in perpetuity.
The various schools that comprise the diversely textured fabric of Jewish life in Ontario provide our community with high-quality education while offering curricula that fit the respective niches of the different schools. But that education costs far too much for most families.
The dramatic tuition reduction last month for students of the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto was an unprecedented, daring step. It was a statement of intention and hope for the future of Jewish education. True, it came at a steep price, namely the closing of the school’s northern branch.
There is no way to make light of the disruption the closing will cause. The disappointment among staff, students and their families was strong. The sadness was real, as was the resulting anger. But that anger should not evoke vilification and denigration. The decision, as difficult as it was, was made in good faith, without ulterior purpose.
But there is one body that does deserve to be criticized: the Ontario government. Ontario remains the only province that refuses to contribute funding to the general studies portion of the curriculum of non-Catholic denominational schools. Ontario’s Ministry of Education even refuses to defray the cost of health support services for children with learning disabilities in non-Catholic denominational schools.
How is this possible, in 2017, in a country whose very constitution is charged with “preserving and enhancing the multicultural heritage of Canadians”?
Surely the fact that other provinces contribute to the general studies curriculum of Jewish schools in their regions makes a lie out of the specious assertion that contributing to non-Catholic denominational schools risks ruining the public education system. No other province relies upon this hollow argument.
Ontario continues to take shelter behind a Supreme Court ruling – more than two decades old – that its discriminatory educational funding practices were permitted for historical reasons stemming from the founding of Canada. The court did not rule that those practices were required or mandated by the Constitution. Is it not time for Ontario to change its objectionable policy?
As with other important issues that come before the highest court, social attitudes have shifted. Witness the decision of the Supreme Court in 2015 in a case brought by Loyola High School. The government of Quebec was attempting to impose province-wide standards and policies upon the Catholic high school’s teaching of other religious faiths. The case did not deal with provincial funding policies, and thus, is not directly applicable to Ontario’s funding policies. But in issuing its judgment about the intersection of overall societal interests, as protected by the government, and specific pedagogical interests, as demanded by the denominational school, the Supreme Court made the following powerful statement:
“A secular state does not – and cannot – interfere with the beliefs or practices of a religious group unless they conflict with or harm overriding public interests. Nor can a secular state support or prefer the practices of one group over another. The pursuit of secular values means respecting the right to hold and manifest different religious beliefs. A secular state respects religious differences, it does not seek to extinguish them.”
Ontario’s blatant discrimination does indeed effectively support and prefer the practices of Catholic schools over other faith-based schools. The government of Ontario continues to choose expedience over principle, and injustice over fairness and equity. Ontario should abandon its discriminatory funding practices.