Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Education Ontario

I've been holding back from entering the fray over the whole faith-based school funding initiative. However, watching the Liberal spin machine and their tame media over the last couple of days, it's obviously going to be a big issue, so I'm going to make a serious attempt to tackle it.

I have a lot of thoughts on this whole subject, not least because we're on the verge of choosing schooling options for my daughter and thus becoming part of Ontario's education system for the first time. There's too much to say for one post, so I will be dealing with education in three separate posts:

1. The faith-based school funding idea itself.
2. The political fallout, spin and nastiness arising.
3. The discussion we should really be having about education.

I am not in favour of the proposal itself, not because of any trumped-up objections about multi-culturalism, etc. but because on a practical level it is an unmanageable can of worms. The question of what constitutes a faith-based school, or indeed a faith, is going to be impossible to define.

One of the reasons that the current system has been able to function for so long is that 'Catholic' is relatively easy to define. Had 'Catholic' meant any one of 10,000 faiths, churches, cults, sects, groups, associations, etc. the two-board system would have crumbled acrimoniously apart by now. This has not happened, but there is clearly a strong, perhaps ultimately irresistible movement to end the anomaly of publicly funded Catholic education.

With the current two-board system therefore resembling a building on a somewhat shaky foundation, it seems to me the worst thing that could be done at this time is to add some extra storeys.

If the John Tory plan were implemented, where would secular private schools be? You'd have one set of parents suddenly relieved of school fees based on their belief system, while another set of parents would continue to pay. Many parents (myself included) might choose their local private Christian school not for religious reasons, but simply to get a decent education not available in the public system. Why should they get help because their chosen school has a religious foundation, while another set of parents has to continue to pay? Is a non-religious private school arguably a humanist-secular faith-based school?

I think that there are two questions to be dealt with independently. One is what to do about publicly funded Catholic education - and nobody wants to touch that one.

The second question should not be about faith-based schools per se but about what can be done to help parents who for any reason choose any alternative to publicly funded education.

To that end, I believe the tax-credit approach proposed by the last Ontario government would have been a much better one. Parents choosing private schooling or home-schooling are paying twice for their children's education. The tax credit recognized this and offered them relief on a portion of their second cost. I think this respected parents, while minimizing the financial and practical impact on the public education system. It also did not discriminate on faith or any other basis.

A tax-credit, voucher or other assistance scheme proposal would focus debate where it should be: on the quality of education available, on what works and doesn't work within the public system, on why parents might choose something different, on education and not religion and race. Team McGuinty would have had a much harder time with that one. However, more on the politics of it all later.