Faith-based schools debate? Stork dancing

By  Peter Lauwers, Catholic Register Special
  • October 22, 2007
{mosimage}The debate about the public funding of faith-based schools in the Ontario election campaign could be described as “stork dancing.”  There was no engagement and no contact.  No honest exchange, just a bashing of hard beaks.  And the blame was evenly spread.

It would appear from salvos attacking religious education, such as the most recent one by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, that supporters of funding for faith-based schools needed to do a better job of persuading their fellow Ontarians that the policy is wise and good.  They needed to challenge the widespread myth that religious education naturally leads to bigoted, intolerant students. Instead, these supporters chose to parrot the fairness line, which seemed to have little traction among voters.  Perhaps well-meaning but misguided political advice led them to this strategy. But it needs to be rethought.

Though the election is over, the debate will continue. Supporters of funding for faith-based schools need to make real efforts to appeal to the sympathies of Ontarians by explaining why they are looking for public funding. And there is a good story there.

Given current levels of religious illiteracy in Ontario, many voters do not understand that for religious people, their religion and culture give meaning and purpose to their lives. The gift of faith is what they want to pass on to their children. These parents consider it crucial for education to have a religious dimension, and they see themselves as no more able to teach their children the intricacies of their religion than the intricacies of geometry.  In other words, they want the schools to add an intellectual foundation to the faith the children experience at home and in their religious communities.  

Parents who support faith-based schools have not publicly expressed their deep-seated fear that exposing their children to education that lacks a religious dimension will cause them to lose their faith. They accept the need for a common Ontario curriculum and qualified teachers. At the same time, these parents look around at their faith community and can identify members who have and continue to make a real contribution to public life in Ontario — and wonder why others don’t see that.  

If these parents expressed honestly and directly their hopes and fears for their children, they might actively engage the sympathies of other voters.

The debate has also been full of canards.  One is that supporters of faith-based schools are looking for a subsidy from fellow Ontarians.  This is not true.  These supporters now pay education taxes, from which they derive no direct benefit, and the myriad of other taxes all Ontarians pay.  If anything, their complaint could be that they are unfairly subsidizing students in public schools.

Opponents argue that funding faith-based schools violates the principle of the separation of church and state.  There is no such principle in Canada.  Our society has benefited and continues to benefit from the energy and commitment of religious groups to provide faith-based social services, health care and education, all with public funds and delivered according to public standards.  The real issue is how the religious diversity of our society can be reasonably accommodated.  A relentlessly secular public system of education is not the way.

Some argue that funding for faith-based schools will be diverted from public education.  This ignores both the fact that faith-based schools will become part of public education, and the fact that the allocation of public money is a political choice that every government must make.  Since no party wishes to diminish the funding of public education, but all are instead committed to increasing it, this line of attack is disingenuous.  

Finally, the debate has become an artificial “all or nothing” proposition.  This is too simplistic. The aspirations of parents who want more diversity in public education vary.  Some would only be content with separate schools.  Others would find separate classes to be sufficient.  Still others would be satisfied if their children could opt out of certain classes.  Others would like nothing more than an opportunity to teach religion to children in public schools during off hours.  But no one is talking about these options because they believe that the sharp point of a wedge issue better serves their political purposes.

Stork dancing.

In a society that values choice in all things from consumer goods to public services, it is remarkable how people seem to resist choice in public education.  Choice and accountability are both important values in our society. If we apply them consistently then the public funding of faith-based schools and other faith-based options in the public system seems both logical and good.

(Lauwers is a lawyer with Toronto-based MillerThomson. In his legal practice, he has specialized in education and constitutional issues.)

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