Fairness in school funding? It's just not on

When the UN asked the government of Ontario to fund all religious schools on top of the Catholic schools the province already funds, or fund none at all, the Education Minister, Janet Ecker, uttered the polite version of  "get stuffed."  We, not the UN, speak for the people of Ontario, she said. Butt out.

Ecker would probably never say, "We, not the WTO,  or we, not a secret NAFTA tribunal, speak for the people of Ontario," but you say what you can get away with.

Ever since the province started funding Catholic schools, Ontario's Jews,  Muslims, and other religious minorities have been pressing Queen's Park to subsidize the province's other parochial schools, the Jewish schools and Muslim schools that do for Jews and Muslims what Catholic schools do for Catholics -- provide an education within a religious tradition. How can you let Jewish and Muslim  parents who want to opt out of the public system pick up the tab to send their  kids to religious schools when Catholic parents have the advantage of fully publicly funded schools to send their kids to?

To top it all off, parents who send their kids to private religious schools have to pay public school taxes, putting them in the same boat as rich parents who send their kids to tony private schools. That's the significant point to this whole story

When the UN shook its finger at Mike Harris's government and cried foul, these parents felt vindicated. Ontario's funding of Catholic schools violated the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, an agreement the Canadian government had signed and the Ontario government had assented to.

Not that it wasn't obvious to anyone with even a rudimentary moral sense that something was terribly unfair, but it was nice to be backed by the UN. Maybe the UN judgement would embarrass Queen's Park, and Jewish schools, and Muslim schools, and Hindu schools, would join Catholic schools in receiving public funds. So it was ardently wished for.

But when the story hit the newspapers it created as much of a splash as a kite gently landing on a placid lake, but it sunk from public consciousness as quickly as Jimmy Hoffa's concrete-encrusted remains plunging to the bottom of the East river. When the story got a day or two of coverage, wedged anonymously in the back pages between stories about the mayor's middle-name and a buskers' festival in Montreal, it became obvious that the Ontario government would be as red-faced as anyone who makes a faux pas no one notices.  Ontario may have run afoul of an international covenant on human rights, but Leibniz's theory of monads was getting more attention.

Strange then that when a plan to subsidize private schools came under attack, equity would be trotted out by the same government that told the UN to back off. The plan, summed up nicely by one newspaper as public cash for private class, would see parents get a $3,500 tax credit on private school tuitions.  We're doing it to be fair, the Education Minister seemed to say.

Fair?

Like so many other tax subsidies, this one is about as fair as, well, funding one religion's schools but not another's.

The problem, as hard-headed conservatives like to say, is that there's no free lunch. Every dollar someone  doesn't pay in taxes, is a dollar someone else has to pay, or it's a dollar stripped from a publicly provided service, like, say...public education.

So let's take the Muslim family that doesn't make quite enough to send their kids to religious school. Part of their taxes will subsidize the tuitions of Muslim and Jewish and just plain rich kids whose parents can spring for private school fees. Fair? Hardly. Those who can't afford private schools will help pay the tuitions of those who can. But if you think about it, that's always happening. Those who can't afford to go to university help pay the subsidized tuitions of those who can. Those who can't afford to invest in an RRSP help subsidize those who can. Poor people are forever helping rich people, to go to school, to save for retirement, to make profits. Which is one reason they're poor.

If public cash for private class is really about being fair to all religious denominations, why not limit the tax credit to parochial schools alone, instead of letting it apply to the snobbish training grounds of the province's elite? Do parents who send their kids to Upper Canada College really need a tax subsidy? They think so. But they think all for them and none for anyone else is good policy. Which is part of the reason they're rich.

And if equity is indeed what impelled Queen's Park to put up public cash for private schools, why did the Ontario cabinet blow off the UN when the UN came calling about a little matter of rights violations?

The UN, it might be recalled, pointed out that there were two ways to bring the province's education funding into line with the covenant. It could fund all religious schools, or it could end funding for Catholic schools and consolidate funding into one, secular public school system available to all, regardless of religion. In other words, something that was fair, and dare I say, efficient.

For a government so passionate about consolidating municipalities and hospitals and school boards and electoral boundaries, all in the interests of eking out efficiencies, you'd think consolidating school systems would be a natural. Economies of scale, taxpayers' dollars being stretched further, a bigger bang for the buck -- all the little nuggets of gold to be found at the end of the consolidation rainbow. So why not?

Simple. Dismantling the Catholic school system is just not on.

A useful phrase, "it's just not on." It's the neutron bomb in the arsenal of those who are comfortable with the way things are today, but haven't any really compelling reason to keep them that way.

Palestinian right of return? It's just not on. Public auto-insurance? It's just not on. Funding increases for medicare that match inflation and population growth? Not on. Whittling down profits to let sweatshop workers earn a liveable wage? Not on, either.

And nor is dismantling Catholic schools. It would set off a fire storm of protest, some say, though why that should deter Queen's Park is a question worth pondering. The Ontario government has a knack for touching off firestorms, even relishing them, oft times deliberately provoking them, something the province's teachers know all too well. And it's not as if consolidating school systems has never been done. Newfoundland folded an unwieldy and fractured complex of parochial schools into one public school system.

So, why is it just not on in Ontario?

And why should the province's Catholics (or Jews or Muslims or anyone else for that matter) be sequestered in their own publicly funded schools? Is math taught differently in Catholic schools? Can chemistry be taught from a Muslim perspective? Is there a Jewish perspective on English grammar? And the rich: Do they have their own perspective on geography?

Of course not. But there's an elite perspective on public schools, and that's at the root of why Mike Harris's Common Sense revolutionaries think public cash for private class is a good thing. It goes like this: You can have your public schools, as long as you don't trouble us to pay for them. We'll offer them donations, in return for publicity and free advertising. That's good business.  We'll make sure they turn out kids with the right skills. That's good business, too. But pay for them when we're paying tuition fees at our own schools? I'll tell you what. Pick up part of the tab for the tuition we pay to send our kids to our schools. That'll even the playing field, reduce our burden.

Janet Ecker is easing their burden. All in the name of equity.

Meanwhile, some poor kid just found out that he can't take his science text home (there are too few to go around) and he'll have to ask his mom for $15 to pay for the calculator the teacher says he needs to buy. He doesn't know that his parents are helping to pay the private school fees of the son of the woman who runs the corporation his father works for. She earns about 200 times what his father makes. Heck, his father doesn't know. And he may never know. But that's okay. Doing anything about it is just not on.