In Ontario, the education debate has been crippled by certain assumptions that might be toppled by a closer examination of the issues at hand. These assumptions were brought to mind by the Fraser Institute's analysis last month that adopting the B.C. model of education financing would provide greater value to the Ontario taxpayer. But, as critics (including the Ontario government) are quick to point out, there is more involved in the delivery of education than reducing educational models to financial equations. Let us reconsider some of the conclusions that are wrongly taken for granted in this discussion.
First assumption: The public school system is the glue that holds our democratic society together.
Many view public schools as organizations that ensure the next generation—regardless of their socio-economic, religious, or family context—are schooled in the civic virtues that society values. Read the purpose clause of the Education Act: these sort of lofty goals are enumerated. The assumption is that independent schools have been formed around different sorts of goals and priorities.
To be sure, there is variation in the priorities that different schools in Ontario emphasize, but these should not cloud the similarities. A 2012 Cardus-University of Notre Dame survey of adult Canadians concluded that independent school graduates exemplify characteristics sought after by educators in measures that equal or exceed public school graduates, even after controls are put in place for socio-economic status. So if education for the public is understood in terms of desired outcomes rather than simply who operates the vehicle of delivery, it is all public education, education for the common good.
Second assumption: Taxpayer money should be reserved for public schools.
The second argument usually raised regards the prudence of taxpayer money funding religiously oriented schools. The Catholic school system has, as a consequence of constitutional guarantees, always had certain privileged status. Some question the fairness of this in our present multicultural context, while others argue that designating any public funds for religious schools violates some church-state separation doctrine. (Ironically, this is an American concept the Canadian Supreme Court has explicitly ruled doesn't apply the same way in Canada.) What is overlooked is that, for the most part, Catholic school graduates look virtually identical to public school graduates (on 111 measures that were examined in the Cardus-Notre Dame survey in 2012, there was not a single statistically significant difference). This data debunks the myth that any explicit presence of religion in a school is a dangerous toxin. Tolerance demands that we respect and maintain a place for the diverse, religiously-informed perspectives in the public square.
Leaving aside the constitutional conflagration that would accompany any proposal to defund Ontario Catholic schools, responsible consideration of the Ontario's policy options needs to deal with the religious school question. As University of Western Ontario's Derek Allison noted in Cardus's recent report, a "chilly climate" and "unhelpful hostile demeanour" with which Ontario's educational establishment has treated independent schools, a trend that falls out of step with other jurisdictions around the world, ignores a 1985 Royal Commission provided to the government, and unnecessarily neglects the government's responsibility to the 125,000 or so student citizens of the province.
Third assumption: A single public school system is best able to equip the next generation to face the future challenges of an increasingly globalized world and economy.
The monopoly mindset that a single public school system is able to solve all problems is one that falls behind trends throughout the world and even North America, where many jurisdictions are figuring out how diverse school systems can be supported in ways that contribute to the public good. When there is diversity in school systems, there is also an opportunity to learn from each other, to innovate and to challenge each other, and to grow together in serving our children for a better future. While Fraser's proposal of adapting B.C.'s educational policy is not something that can be simply adopted and implemented, it does represent a need to assess alternatives using a forward-looking, outward approach, rather than the introverted, closed response that we have all the answers and nothing to learn from others. And it offers the promise of a school system that is democratic, inclusive, and produces better outcomes to boot.