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Politics Why Tories backtracked on private school tax credit

The federal Conservatives blamed the Liberal deficits when they dropped the proposal earlier this month.

Michael Bell/The Canadian Press

The federal Conservatives have quietly abandoned plans to offer tax credits to parents sending their children to independent schools. But they’ve done it for the wrong reason.

When Andrew Scheer was running for the party’s leadership, he promised his government would offer a tax deduction of up to $4,000 for parents sending their children to independent schools.

“Parents have the primary responsibility for educating their children, and the government should make it a little easier for parents to make their own choices,” he stated in his platform.

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But it is one thing to appeal to partisans when seeking the leadership of a political party, and something quite different to seek broad support during an election campaign. John Tory’s pledge, when he was Ontario Progressive Conservative leader, to offer public funding for independent religious schools contributed to his 2007 election loss.

Earlier this month, the federal party announced it was dropping the proposal, blaming the substantial Liberal deficits for the switch.

"As a result of Trudeau’s budget mess, Mr. Scheer will not move ahead with the tax credit for independent schools at this time,” said Daniel Schow, Mr. Scheer’s press secretary, in an e-mail exchange.

Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan already fund separate Roman Catholic school systems. Five other provinces, including Quebec and British Columbia, partly fund students attending independent schools.

About 7 per cent of students in Canada, representing more than 400,000 students, attend independent schools, according to Statistics Canada. A 2016 report by the Fraser Institute, a conservative think tank, found that about half of the schools are faith-based – a large majority of those being Christian, of one kind or another – with most of the rest catering to students with special needs or distinct academic interests.

According to research conducted by Deani Van Pelt, who is associated with the Fraser Institute and with Cardus, a faith-based think tank, the number of independent schools in Ontario – as opposed to students – has increased by 50 per cent over the past 14 years. “This is a shocking increase,” she said in an interview.

“The independent school sector is definitely growing across the country."

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As Canada becomes ever-more culturally diverse, the number of parents who want to send their students to independent schools is bound to grow.

But beyond the philosophical question of to what extent public funding should support independent schools, there is a major problem with the tax credit: It would mark a new and dangerous intrusion by the federal government into an area of provincial jurisdiction.

Primary and secondary education is one the few areas of provincial responsibility that the federal government does not intrude on. The result is one of the best education systems in the world.

In the most recent OECD-sponsored Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test results, which rank education systems across 70 countries, Canada ranked 10th in math, seventh in science and third in reading – roughly on par with Estonia, Finland and South Korea, and well ahead of the United States and most European countries. Among major developed countries, only Japan did noticeably better.

A federal tax credit would make it easier for parents to pull their children out of public schools and put them into independent schools. What more blatant intervention by the federal government in an area of provincial jurisdiction could there be? Why would the Conservatives, of all parties, even think of such a thing?

While Ms. Van Pelt is a strong supporter of government funding for independent schools, she, too, is bothered by the idea of a federal tax credit. “We should continue to focus on the provincial level," she said, though she lauds the motive, if not the actual policy.

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“What Andrew Scheer has done is point attention to the role that independent schools offer in providing diversity on the education landscape," she said.

Independent schools are no longer bastions of wealth and privilege. Most parents who send their children to independent schools are middle-income; many are immigrants. They are make major sacrifices to ensure that their children are brought up in an environment that reflects their values, or to ensure their children get the special attention that, one way or another, they need.

Should we encourage more tax dollars than we do already to supporting such schools? That’s an interesting debate.

But it’s a debate that belongs at the provincial level. The Conservatives should ditch their education tax credit, permanently.

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