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Why All the Fuss Over Faith-Based Schools? 
Should faith-based schools be publicly funded? The concept raises fear and suspicion in the minds of many.

The idea of government funding for faith-based schools seems to strike fear in the hearts of some Canadians. During Ontario’s last provincial election, some voters feared numerous inferior schools would spring up across the province willynilly if the government extending funding to legitimate faith-based schools. The claim was that people would flock to these schools, abandoning and thereby destroying the public system.

… alternative schools are about offering choice and choice is a good thing.

Others believed ‘faith-based’ schools to be subversive to society. Even some candidates went so far as to suggest that faith-based schools could be warped into training camps for terrorists. Supporters of over 400 faith-based schools across the province were both frustrated and bewildered by what they were hearing from some politicians, and that the electorate could buy into such fearful innuendo.

“Is democracy about conformity? Or is it about diversity and creativity?” wonders John Vanasselt, spokesperson of the Ancaster-based Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools (OACS) which represents 79 independent Christian schools in Ontario and the Eastern provinces. The way he sees it, alternative schools are about offering choice and choice is a good thing.

“A faith-based school identifiably brings principles of its faith into the program,” says Vanasselt. Courts have ruled the public system to be secular, thus by definition unable to bring the principles of the Christian faith, the Jewish faith or the Muslim faith into programs.

In Ontario the government pays for education in secular public schools and in Roman Catholic faith-based schools. The majority of citizens choose one of these options. Yet, approximately six percent of the Ontario population choose private schools not funded by the government and half of these are faith-based choices. These people want to educate their children in line with what they believe and value. Vanasselt points out, “Education is primarily a parental responsibility. All parents want their children to be successful, happy and productive. Schools are an integral part of the process.” OACS promotes the view that the government should support all students whose education prepares them for responsible citizenship.

Ontario condemned by the U.N.

That the government of Ontario funds Roman Catholic Schools and no other faith-based schools, has been condemned by the United Nations as a human rights violation. Back in 1985 the provincial government was ready to right this wrong by implementing the Report by the Commission on Private Schools headed by Dr. B. Shapiro, then Director of Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) in Toronto. According to OACS (an active participant in that process), the government got off track in 1985 fighting court cases started by the public school boards who were opposed to the extension of funding. The Shapiro Report was sidelined.

From a purely economic point of view the establishment of alternative schools is a good deal for the taxpayer. The province’s current education budget is set at $19 billion or approximately $9,600 per student in publicly funded schools. The cost per student in a faith-based private elementary school ranges from $4,000 to $10,000 per student.

John Vanasselt figures a tax credit to cover 50 percent of per student cost for all independent schools in Ontario (a percentage in line with what’s happening in other provinces in Canada) would boil down to $150 million dollars, or less than one percent of the overall education budget. If those same 125,000 independent school students were to enrol in the public system, as they are legally entitled to do, the government would be spending a billion dollars per year to educate them.

Why are parents spending thousands of dollars to educate their children privately when a standard public education is readily available? The Fraser Institute, an independent research and educational organization founded in 1974 with offices in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto published a study in 2007 called Ontario’s Private Schools: Who Chooses Them and Why?

Their study involved 253 academically defined schools and 410 religiously defined schools. According to the study, private schools have been in the province since 1829 with the first private Christian school established in 1852, first Jewish school in 1907 and the first Islamic school in 1992.

Prefer value-based schools

The Fraser study clearly shows that parents who care enough to educate their children according to their beliefs and values, also care about their country and set high standards for themselves and their children. The study found that parents who choose private schools are much more likely to vote in elections than the average Ontario parent with school-aged children (93 percent vs. 61 percent in provincial elections), and are three times as likely to be a member of a political party (9 percent vs. 3 percent). 

The top ten reasons parents gave for choosing a faith-based school were: 1) reinforces our religion, 2) teaches right from wrong, 3) has no danger of teachers going on strike, 4) supports our family’s values, 5) is a safe school, 6) has dedicated teachers, 7) values parent-teacher collaborations, 8) emphasizes academic quality, 9) educates the whole child, and 10) is conducive to character development.

Choice strengthens schools

The Fraser study notes private schools are effective schools. These schools are self-governed and supported by broader school affiliations. “Strong local leadership, collegial collaboration between principals, teachers and parents, a focus on learning and teaching, high expectations, and ordered environment were features overwhelmingly identified by the parents as characteristics present in their private school of their choice.” The study observes that “the current move by Ontario’s publicly governed schools toward ever greater standardization and hierarchical accountability runs counter to the findings of effective schools research.”

“Choice improves education across the board. Competition is a known improvement dynamic in business,” states Barb Bierman of Parents for Educational Choice (PEC). In Denmark, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand, where the government supports school choice, studies show that parents are more satisfied and student achievement is improved.” She suggests a good place for the Ontario government to start is by looking at the systems in British Columbia and Alberta.

In the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA), which assesses 15-year-olds for literacy in science, reading and mathematics in 57 countries, Alberta and British Columbia consistently place above Ontario and the Canadian average. Barb Bierman suggests that this could be because they have a healthy attitude toward educational choices. The government provides options in those two provinces that enrich public education. “This meets the needs of all students, not just the 95 percent. Every child gets quality education.”

Ontario in minority

Quebec and all the provinces west of Ontario fund alternative schools in a variety of ways. Alberta’s options in education include accredited private schools which must follow Alberta Program of Studies, employ certified teachers and meet regulatory reporting requirements. These schools receive from 40 to 60 percent of the money it would cost to educate students in public schools. There is also a plan by which each public school board defines alternative programs and draws up individual contracts with schools.

British Columbia offers several categories of classification and grants to independent schools. All schools must meet basic Ministry of Education requirements, including the stipulation that they may not promote hatred, racism, ethnic or religious superiority. Schools receive 50, 35, or 10 percent of the basic per student grant which would have been required to educate them at the local public school. Grant amounts are scaled to the level of oversight provided by the Ministry. The more strings, the more money. 

OACS strongly recommends that the Ontario government dust off its 1985 Report of the Commission on Private Schools and implement the majority of the 61 recommendations.

In a nutshell, according to the Commission, there should be no legal public monopoly in education. Diversity within the public school system should be encouraged. Private schools that meet minimum government standards should be recognized and valued for providing diversity and alternative choices in education. New initiatives in the public support of private schools and in the relationship of these schools to the public schools should be actively developed.

As for the idea that numerous inferior schools would spring up across the province once funding is in place, Barb Bierman points out that it takes an enormous amount of motivation and energy to set up a school.

“I can’t imagine that funding would make that more attractive to do,” she says. And, just because someone sets up a ‘school,’ doesn’t automatically make the school eligible for government funding. The school would have to meet government requirements. Funding usually means accountability. That would be a good thing. As noted in the Fraser Report, right now Ontario is the least regulated market for school choice. Along with no financial support there are no government conditions for establishing a school.

Marian den Boer is a writer and editor based in Hamilton, Ontario.

Originally published in Beacon, May/June 2008. Updated July, 2010.

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