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The secular argument for faith-based schooling

Has anyone yet noticed that all the arguments John Tory marshals in favour of his proposal to fund religious schools are purely secular? He’s pushing three specific buttons: his proposal would ensure properly certified teachers, a government-certified curriculum, and school board oversight for every student in the province. As Dalton McGuinty positions himself ever more firmly as the defender of public education, expect him to come under pressure to explain why he allows 50,000 Ontario students to receive none of these benefits.

Faith-based schooling has been anointed the campaign’s defining issue, and some are characterizing it as a major misstep by the Conservatives, an issue they must quickly distance themselves from. Tory will do no such thing. Consider his own history: During the 1988 federal election, when he ran Brian Mulroney’s leader’s tour, the key issue—the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement—was costing them dearly in the polls, and some of Mulroney’s advisors were recommending that they drop the issue by promising a future referendum on the FTA. Tory abhorred this idea, and personally convinced Mulroney to campaign even more aggressively on the free-trade issue.

Tory is as wedded to faith-based schools as Mulroney was to free trade. What’s more, Tory’s greatest political asset as a leader is that he is widely perceived as having strong principles. If he flip-flops on this issue, that positive perception would crumble. Which is why he issued a clarification about his comments on creationism—which was clearly a blunder—but would not issue a retraction.

Meanwhile, public funding for faith-based schools has many articulate and motivated defenders, as anyone who heard yesterday’s debate on CBC Radio’s The Current between The Walrus’ Ken Alexander and Canadian Jewish Congress CEO Bernie Farber can attest. Tory can count on them to keep the issue on the map while he busies himself attacking McGuinty’s record.

The problem for Tory in this regard is that the Liberals’ record isn’t that bad. Faith-based schooling may be the defining issue, but it’s not the deciding issue.

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