Towards Democratizing Education

Brian Stavert and Farzana Hassan

John Tory's recent declarations on extending funding to all faith based schools has understandably sparked a firestorm of debate among education reform advocates in Ontario.  The proponents of the status quo maintain they have constitutional guarantees to protect their rights.  The agents of change on the other hand believe its high time such constitutional provisions were amended. Though much has been said on both sides of the debate, the following issues still need a careful and dispassionate glance if the public is to fully understand the implications of John Tory's decisions.  

While  supporters of funding to faith based schools make three claims about our current education system, it is now imperative to subject these claims to scrutiny. They base their arguments on the following: That there is religious discrimination in public schools, that religious freedom is therefore denied within the public school system and that faith-based schools provide a superior moral education.
Suffice it to say that the only religious discrimination existing in the Ontario
educational system is the Provincial funding of Catholic schools. The support of one faith based school system (Catholic) to the exclusion of all others is discrimination against other religions. Secondly, Catholic School Boards have discriminated and continue to discriminate against students and teachers allowed into their system on the basis of religion, which is a clear violation of civil rights and liberties. In both cases the most prudent and morally responsible solution would be the dissolution of the Separate (Catholic) School Boards and the merger of separate schools into one (French & English) religiously- neutral, publicly supported school system, open and fair to all.

Proponents of faith based  schools claim that our current system prevents them from the due exercise of their faiths, which they assert is a violation of their rights and freedoms under our constitution. This is only true to the extent that the Province
continues to provide full funding support for the Catholic Separate school system as there is no religious discrimination in the Public School System. It is a false assertion to claim that the Public School system is contrary to religious freedom since no one's rights to hold their beliefs or follow their faiths are prevented by having a religiously neutral environment to learn in, that is fair and open to all regardless of faith. Once again, the only sensible solution is to have one religiously- neutral,  publicly supported school system in both official languages.  

An oft repeated argument for extending support to faith based schools is their purported "superior moral" values. The only real way to validate that claim would be with bias-free data based on the moral or ethical performance of students leaving these schools for the real world.  In Canada there are no reliable data to support such assertions.

Integration rather than segregation based on religion or ethnicity should be the ultimate goal of civilized societies. Most of us believe that the function of education
is to prepare our children to be well adjusted, responsible adults in order to integrate into the world around them. When our children, as adults, enter the vocational world they will not be able to pick Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Hindu or other faith based work places - they will have to live and work in a culturally and faith-diversified world. Keeping official religion out of schools is the only way to guarantee the equal rights and freedoms for all faiths and in no way denies someone their free right to exercise their faith. The home and the community are the best places to practice ones faith where they do not intrude on the rights and freedoms of others to do likewise.

Farzana Hassan is the president of the Muslim Canadian Congress and author of Islam, Women and the Challenges of Today.


[Farzana Hassan-Shahid is President of the Muslim Canadian Congress, Freelance writer, public speaker and author of  "Prophecy and the Fundamentalist Quest" and host of the radio program Islam: Faith and Culture.]