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Is it time to reconsider funding for private schools in Ontario?

As parents in Ontario are forced once again to deal with labour unrest in public schools, perhaps it is time to re-open the discussion on expanding educational choice by allowing those who send their children to private schools to direct their education taxes to the institutions they select.

Such a debate would undoubtedly evoke memories of John Tory’s ill-fated promise in 2007 that, if elected Premier, he would extend public financing to religious schools in the province. That announcement is widely viewed as the reason why the Conservatives lost the general election that year, ultimately leading to Tory's own downfall as party leader. Be that as it may, the proposal represented a refreshing, if modest, departure from the kind of stale thinking that has come to dominate discussion about education and education funding, not just in Ontario, but across Canada.

There are those who say that extending funding to private schools - especially faith-based schools – is a matter of fairness, since Catholics have access to public funds to support their institutions. This is true as far as it goes, but as an argument in favour of extending funding, it’s weak.

The real issue is not equality, but choice.

The obligation to educate children is, first and foremost, a parental obligation. It may make sense to use the authority of the government to raise funds for education through taxes, but this does not change the fundamental nature and source of the obligation, nor does it alter the proper role of government as facilitator – not dictator – of education. When it comes to education, parents are consumers. They ought to be permitted to decide for themselves where to purchase that service.

Ontario's children are being poorly served by Soviet-style central control over education. Despite having one of the best funded education systems in the world, the average academic performance of the province’s students is mediocre at best when ranked against that of students from other developed countries. As academic standards have declined moreover, so too have behavioural standards. Not only are common-sense values and the responsible behaviour that they inspire not taught, more often than not they are denigrated as a matter of principle.

Who’s responsible?

In truth, nobody is responsible, because nobody is accountable in any meaningful way. Basic policy decisions are made – often after a lengthy, complicated and mind-numbing process of evaluation – by faceless technocrats who are isolated by several layers of bureaucracy from the consequences of their decisions, not to mention the judgment of those who must live with them, namely the teachers and parents.

This is what makes private schools so attractive. Like the original public schools, these institutions are essentially joint ventures by parents who pool their resources to provide education for their children. Private schools are run by either parents or administrators hired by parents, they are funded by parents, and they are accountable to parents.

Freed from the constraints of central planning, private schools – like the original public schools – are able to adjust quickly and efficiently to the changing needs of their students. They are free to adopt new practices and new technologies that improve education, and to drop those that don’t, all without waiting for the official approval of the Ministry of Education.

Ironically, the principle flaw in the Tory plan may have been that it did not go far enough. To be truly effective it would have to be extended to all private schools in the province, not just faith-based schools. Parents who choose to educate their children at home would have to be taken into consideration too. Extending funding - either directly, or through some sort of a voucher program – would not just accommodate the children of those parents who opt out of the state-run system, it would also benefit those children who remain in the system. In almost every jurisdiction that’s been studied, more parental choice in education has led to better average performances for all students, including those in the public system.

Having written all of this, it must be acknowledged that there are also dangers inherent in what Tory was proposing, not the least of which is the possibility that funds might be used to finance the indoctrination of children into hateful and potentially violent ideologies.

Admittedly, this is a serious issue, but is it an education issue?

Surely it’s the job of our domestic intelligence and law enforcement agencies, not the Ministry of Education, to ensure that schools – or any other organization for that matter – do not become centres of subversion and sedition. If there are schools today that are teaching such things it’s not because of public funding (which doesn’t exist yet) but because the government is failing to take action and close them down. Continuing to hold the parents of the almost 60,000 children currently enrolled in private denominational schools hostage won’t make Ontario any safer.

Many of Ontario’s private schools, including those that are faith-based, are older than the very education system that is attacking them. For generations these schools have partnered with parents to raise responsible and productive members of society. Indeed, many of Ontario’s preeminent citizens over the years, including Dalton McGuinty himself, have been products of private, faith-based education.

Hundreds of thousands of Ontario’s parents from all walks of life and from all socio-economic backgrounds, have, over the years, recognized the benefit of educating their children in these schools – benefit for both the children and for society at large.

Frankly, it’s time for government to do the same.

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