It was a rainy day last week. In about an hour there would be an outdoor barbecue at the home of former Liberal MPP Annamarie Castrilli, to thank the volunteers of Conservative candidate Michael Mostyn for their work in the recent federal election campaign.
Guest speaker Jim Flaherty was being interviewed, a few blocks away for this article and wondered whether the barbecue would go on as planned. Not quite suddenly, the clouds parted, the sun peeked out and the rain stopped.
Flaherty, an Irish-born Roman Catholic, has been a long-time proponent of choice in education. That puts him on the side of parents who enroll their children in Jewish schools. While tax breaks for private school parents were adopted by the previous PC government under Ernie Eves, in which Flaherty was finance minister, they were cancelled by the Liberals under Premier Dalton McGuinty.
Leadership candidate Frank Klees also supports the Equity in Education Tax Credit, although it appears not to be a priority in his campaign. Early in the campaign, Klees announced that the centerpiece of his education policy was an effort to bring peace to schools through the development of a positive alternative to teacher strikes in consultation with frontline teachers.
Leadership candidate John Tory’s position on funding of ‘independent schools’ is less clearly defined. In a prepared statement, Tory pointed to the controversy surrounding the issue. “This was turned into a divisive issue by the way it was introduced without consultation with our party, educators, or even our own elected MPPs,” said Tory. “I believe if it is to be a success, we have to start again. If we are to proceed with this policy, we must ensure that it includes accountability and income-testing measures,” he added. “Above all, we must do it right this time.”
This suggests that the issue is about welfare rather than a matter of funding. There are several ways to provide funding for schools of choice, according to Flaherty. He points to Edmonton as a model for a future school system where charter schools would be operated and funded within the public school system. “The advantage I have about the Education Tax Credit is that the issue was around for at least two generations in Ontario,” he said, “and I was the finance minister who finally had the courage to do it. I don’t expect everyone to know that right away but over time there will be a greater positive response in the communities that are primarily affected. Those would include the Jewish community, where parochial schools play a major role.
Flaherty responded to the question of the Jewish vote and how seriously the party would take its value in light of the community’s reluctance to abandon their habitual support of the Liberals. “The parties would take it more seriously if it were more united, which we certainly see in other areas of the province but I’ve had a number of Jewish people say to me that it’s very difficult to move many Jewish voters away from voting for the Liberal Party federally. Provincially, we did better in the ridings with substantial Jewish populations than we’ve done before — in Thornhill, Eglinton-Lawrence and York Centre — not better than we did in 1995 but better than we did before.”
When it comes to education, he said, “our thinking evolves on these things and I believe fundamentally on parental choice. I think of diversity as making more options more affordable to more people. (The Toronto Star) seems to think that diversity means that everyone should be in the public school system, which I find quite astounding. I like the idea of a tax credit instead of a voucher because parents still pay fully into the public school system. We did lose the communications battle with the Liberals on this; McGuinty and his folks convinced a good number of people that money would come out of the public school system because of this tax credit. He convinced people, too, that this was a benefit for the rich, where we had capped it a $3,500 — 50 per cent of $7,000. If a child goes to Upper Canada College, I think it’s something like $18.000 a year now so there was a cap on it to control that kind of thing. I would do it again and I would do it by way of a credit because it’s administratively easy to do. I would also bring in charter schools in Ontario on the Edmonton model. Again, it’s a matter of creating more choice for parents. Charter schools are within the public school system but they’re autonomous schools with their own mandate. They get their funding from the school board and they’re accountable if they don’t maintain their mandate they lose their funding and they’re subject to the standards of the other schools in terms of the fundamentals and testing but it creates opportunities for parents. To make it work you have to let parents send their children to school wherever they want within the school district. The dynamic of it is that a group of parents get together — often with teachers — and say here’s a need we want to address. It might be special needs for children with autism, it might be as with the first one that started in Minnesota with teachers saying ‘we’re not addressing the dropouts issue adequately and there are some kids dropping out who shouldn’t and if we focus on what their needs are they’ll do better’.” “It creates all sorts of possibilities; it can be a sports school, a language school, science and technology. That’s the joy of it,” he said. “It creates more options.”
Castrilli, who jumped from the provincial Liberals to the Conservatives, is co-chair of the Flaherty leadership campaign. She was optimistic about his chances of winning the top job. “It’s not a popular vote,” she explained. Each constituency represents 100 points. The voting takes place within the constituency organizations with each candidate receiving a percentage of the 100 points based on the votes of the members. If one quarter of the members, for example, in an constituency regardless of size, votes for Flaherty or Frank Klees or John Tory, that candidate would be awarded 25 points. The party member in Pelee Island is not outvoted by the party member from Hamilton or Windsor. The barbecue was an opportunity for Michael Mostyn to thank his campaign workers.
“We gained tremendously in this election against their star candidate,” he declared, and vowed to continue his campaign to win the riding for the Conservative Party. Features on Tory and Klees will appear in next week’s Jewish Tribune.