Making faith-based schools part of public system won’t help independent schools or education choice

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Appeared in the Toronto Sun

John Tory’s decision this week to put his party’s faith-based school funding question to a free vote underlines the fact that both the Conservatives and the Liberals have defined this issue through emotional appeals that resonate on the level of personal conscience.

Many who support the idea call on us to end a simple injustice in a system that funds Catholic schools but not those of other religions. Many who oppose this proposal do so by spreading fear that it will divide our community into isolated religious enclaves.

Both these arguments are appealing on an emotional level—the first to our sense of equality and justice, the second to our primal distrust of strangers and their alien practices. It’s easy to respond emotionally, either for or against, without considering the practical effects this policy would have and how similar policies have impacted education elsewhere.

Public funding of private schools is hardly a radical move. Aside from Ontario, other major provinces British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec, not to mention thriving democracies such as Sweden and Denmark all provide some level of public funding to private schools. These places fund not only private religious schools but also independently run secular schools like Montessori, arts schools, and schools for special needs students.

Students score consistently higher on national and international tests in provinces that partially fund independent schools than in those provinces that do not. Swedish evidence shows that in the 15 years since they’ve funded private schools, public school results have improved as a result of competition.

Though mounting international evidence suggests that school choice helps children by improving the education system, there are reasons to be suspicious of John Tory’s proposal. His funding model, unlike those in other provinces, would likely result in a net decrease in choice and quality. The language used to describe his funding model offers the key to the difference. He doesn’t want to support independent schools, he wants to make them public schools.

Bringing faith-based schools into the public system means making them more like public schools. It means a decrease in school-based decision making. It means job security even for ineffective educators and labour actions threatening more children. It will mean fewer options for children who don’t fit the cookie cutter model.

Public funding seems like a windfall for the faith school communities whose parents and teachers make financial sacrifices to make them viable. It’s easy to see why they are tempted. But if we take away the need for parental funding, we will take away the need for schools to answer to parents.And though this might seem easier, it’s never better. A good education starts and ends with engaged parents.

Destroying the very qualities that make faith-based schools desirable is no way to solve a basic injustice. A better idea would be to follow the examples set by the province with the highest academic achievement: Alberta. This calls for a combination of lower personal tax rates, funding for accredited independent schools, and special funding for special needs students at private schools.

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