There has been no shortage of occasions in this household to question the merits of the public school system. The spelling errors in an elementary school principal’s weekly newsletters. The high school bathrooms consistently occupied by Vaping teenagers. The all-Christmas-all-the-time-to-the-exclusion-of-everyone-else hallway decor every December.
Would my kid be better off in a private school? Better educated?
Even as I catastrophize about his possibly sub-standard public education sending him hurtling toward some kind of dead-end life with no prospects, I never get beyond the fleeting fantasy of a private school education. In part because my finances would never allow it. But mostly because my principles won’t.
For the many times I have cocked an eyebrow at the public school system, I have never stopped believing in it: this place where children are educated among peers from worlds beyond their own experience. An edifying bubble-buster exploding with cool facts, expert instruction and social interaction. All in exchange for our tax dollars.
Somewhat lost last weekend, amid the mourning and what-nows following Queen Elizabeth’s death, was a shocking investigation into ultra-religious Jewish schools by the New York Times: It found stunning failure rates on standardized tests at private schools run by New York’s Hasidic communities.
The article (which the Times made available in Yiddish – the language most New York Hasidic Jews speak) posited that while the students were occupied with religious studies, they were being denied a basic education in the fundamentals, including math and science. Some were barely literate in English. Computers? Forget it. The Internet is banned on religious grounds, as are smartphones – even, in some cases, for parents at home. The article depicted pages of textbooks from a boys’ yeshiva censored to black out references to girls and non-Jewish holidays such as Christmas.
(To be clear, these are ultra-Orthodox schools in Hasidic communities, where religious laws are strictly followed, as opposed to more mainstream Jewish day schools.)
What many readers found most infuriating was that these schools are funded with taxpayer dollars. In New York, religious education is not supposed to be funded, but public agencies pay private schools to comply with government mandates and manage social services, the article explained, which then subsidizes the religious instruction.
This is galling, but the lack of oversight is the more serious problem. For all the lost tax dollars, the real loss is to these children: their education.
While there have been some issues with Canadian religious schools not meeting public standards or having problematic employment policies, many religious schools – Muslim, Catholic, Christian, Jewish – are excellent. The main concern in this country has to do with public funding.
Some studies have shown that North American children who attend private schools, including religious schools, outperform public school students (although it’s unclear whether that’s because of their schooling or other factors, such as socio-economic background).
It’s great that they’re getting this wonderful education, but the rest of us should not have to pay for it. Not for any religious school – or private school, period. That money should be going into the public system, to be accessed by any child in this country.
While the funding formulas for non-public schools differ from province to province, a most egregious example of inequity is in Ontario.
In 1984, in his final days as Ontario Premier, Bill Davis announced that full public funding would be granted to Catholic schools through Grade 13 (Catholic school funding, entrenched in the Constitution, had previously been provided through Grade 11). The surprise legacy project was implemented the following year. After a challenge, the courts agreed it was constitutional.
This went into effect after my own Grade 13 education – public school, all the way – and even before attending a single university class, I recognized the overt bias, privileging one religion over all others.
Many people argue that the way to fix the inequity is to extend full funding to non-Catholic religious schools. It’s an issue of fairness, they say.
Fairness is exactly why no religious schools should be publicly funded. The one system that’s available to all should be as well-supported as possible – without independent schools siphoning money away from it.
In British Columbia, where I live now, the legislation is differently wonky: As long as they meet certain criteria, private schools, religious or not, receive 35 or 50 per cent of what a public school receives per student in the same district.
So a parent who can afford to send a child to, say, Vancouver’s St. George’s School – where annual tuition fees for a local day student approach $30,000 a year – is subsidized by the rest of us plebes who send our kids to schools that don’t look like Hogwarts or have the benefit of swimming pools or prep school-sized classes.
In our secular society, why is any province funding religious schools? And why on Earth are we subsidizing private schools that are out of reach for most families?
Maybe it’s my mere public-school education, but I just can’t figure this one out.
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