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Why these Western University profs say it's time to merge the Catholic and public school systems

A pair of professors at Western University have written an essay that argues if Doug Ford's Progressive Conservative government is truly serious about finding 'efficiencies' it should consider merging Ontario's public and Catholic school systems into one.

The move would potentially save billions through maintenance, transportation and administration costs

Why 'it's time to merge Ontario's two school systems' 1:12

In terms of thorny issues in Ontario, there is perhaps none thornier than the idea of merging the public and Catholic school systems into one. 

This money would be saved by eliminating service duplication.- Sam Trosow

Robert Fisher, a long-time Queen's Park watcher for the CBC, often referred to it as "the third rail of Ontario politics" because no politician would dare touch it without the possibility of suffering a quick and certain death. 

Now it seems, times have changed, at least according to two Western professors who have penned an essay entitled, "It's time to merge Ontario's two school systems." 

"I think Ontario is in a crisis situation and Ontario is somewhat at a crossroads," said Western University law and media professor Sam Trosow, who wrote the essay along with Bill Irwin, a social and organizational studies professor from Huron University College.

"I think the public of Ontario is ready for a serious discussion about this," Trosow said. 

'I've never seen anything like this' 

A pair of professors at Western University have written an essay that argues if Doug Ford's Progressive Conservative government is truly serious about finding 'efficiencies' it should consider merging Ontario's public and Catholic school systems into one. (Shutterstock/Syda Productions)
What makes Trosow so sure the province is ready for its premier to touch the metaphorical "the third rail of Ontario politics" is how widely circulated his and Irwin's essay has been on social media.
Sam Trosow is a professor of law and media at Western University in London, Ont. (Western University)

"The response is just phenomenal," Trosow said, noting the essay's thousands of shares. "I think there's a huge appetite for this. There have been studies done that over a majority of the population will be in favour of this." 

In fact, doing away with the Catholic system might even be less of a political lightning rod than what the Progressive Conservative government has already dealt with on the education file. These include cancelling the green school maintenance fund, scuttling the addition of Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations into school lesson plans or rolling back the sex-ed curriculum to the year 1998.  

"If the government wants to save money, don't do it with piecemeal cuts that are actually going to hurt people, do it based on a major policy study," Trosow said.
Bill Irwin is a professor of social and organizational studies at Huron University College in London, Ont. (Western University)

Trosow believes the idea is worth exploring is because of the potential savings involved. The Federation of Urban Neighbourhoods calculated in a 2012 discussion paper that the move could save taxpayers' money in the realm of $1.2 to $1.5 billion per year. 

"That may be a little on the high side, but I think it would be important for the governent to seriously look at this," he said. "This money would be saved by eliminating service duplication."

"It shouldn't affect the students in the classroom at all, there would be the same number of students and arguably the same number of teachers." 

Trosow argues that would take shape in the form of savings on administration, transportation and building construction and maintenance costs, especially in cases where districts have underused schools from low enrolment. 

So why hasn't Ontario done this yet?

If Ontario were to merge its Catholic and public school systems, many of its local boards would become a single entity, eliminating millions in duplication.

In fact, Trosow argues that the closure of rural schools in Ontario, which has hit some of the province's smaller communities hard, might have been avoided altogether had former Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne merged public and Catholic systems. 

"If you had schools in one area together, you would have a much lower underutilization measure and it would make it less likely for a school to be closed," he said. 

There is currently a moratorium on the closure of underused schools in Ontario, but Trosow notes that with a new government in Queen's Park, there's no telling how long that will last, not that the mortorium needs to be lifted in the first place. 

Trosow notes that Quebec, Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador have all done away with their Catholic system, and that despite what most people believe, there is no constitutional guarantee that an education be provided through the lens of faith. 

"Section 93 of the 1867 Constitution gives the denominational schools certain rights," he said. "It's typically thought of as something that takes this whole discussion off the table. 

"What a lot of people don't realize is this would be particularly easy to amend," he said. "In this case, all that would be needed would be a simple resolution from the Ontario government and that would have to be accepted by the federal Parliament." 

Whether Doug Ford's Progressive Conservatives would adopt Trosow and Irwin's idea is hard to say, but Trosow says if the government doesn't want it, there's always the opposition. 

"I don't know what the Tory party is going to do, but I do think if the other parties start raising it and start raising it in opposition and raise the point that, 'You're intent on cutting costs, why don't you think about doing it this way?' It makes a lot of sense." 

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca