Divide and conquer

Ann Dowsett Johnston May 28 2001

Divide and conquer

Ann Dowsett Johnston May 28 2001

Divide and conquer

Ann Dowsett Johnston

First, a confession: twice in my lifetime, I have resorted to private school. The first time was at 16, after moving from a tiny high school in my home town of 4,000 to an urban megaschool of 1,700. The mega-school segregated students like layers in a wedding cake, from the elite high-wattage crowd down through the medium performers to the socalled low lights. Newcomers, no matter how high their marks, were folded into the lowest layer. This was an education, in and of itself.

Here was a gang with a strong sense of self-direction: by mid-afternoon, a good portion of my class had headed off for new learning opportunities, via someone’s car. This left an ever-dwindling group to finish the day alone. By May, I was searching for a place to spend Grade 13, a school where the class might stick around past lunch. The options were few: the girls’ school where they wore tunics, or the girls’ school where they wore kilts. I opted for the kilts. Tartan and ties notwithstanding, it was a very good year.

The second time, I resorted to private school on behalf of my son. That decision germinated slowly throughout his eight years at the local elementary school. As he headed to junior high, I found myself yearning for a more creative, challenging environment. It was not so much a flight as an exploration, and I wasn’t alone. Checking out alternative schools, we shoehorned ourselves into crowded information nights, and lined up for appointments at private schools.

In the end, he chose a school with a bright art studio, cool science labs, a rich academic program—and a hefty price tag. Yes, it was a huge financial stretch. But who wants to gamble with their children?

The answer is: no one. Not Catholic parents, not Muslim parents, not Jewish parents; not rich, not poor. Little wonder, then, that parents have been apoplectic watching Ontario slash $1.6 billion out of elementary and high-school budgets. All this in a mere six years, while the system absorbed an additional 80,000 students. In those same six years, enrolment at Ontario private schools rose by 27 per cent. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out why a growing number of us went elsewhere.

For that reason, Premier Mike Harris must have expected

Yes, my son goes to private school. No, I dont expect others to pay for it

resounding applause for his recent decision to offer tax credits for tuition at private schools, both religious and secular. As of next year, parents can collect $700 per child, a figure that will increase annually to a maximum of $3,500 by 2006. By that time, the government estimates it will have spent $300 million on the initiative. That number looks conservative to me. With this sort of carrot, parents will stampede to private schools. And as demand outpaces supply, new schools will sprout like dandelions in spring. (And fees will rise.) So heck: why don’t we just round out the government commitment to an even half-billion?

Yes, I’m sure Harris expected a round of applause from parents like me. But I’m not clapping. Sending your son to private school does not mean you expect others to pay for your choice. This initiative is little more than a bribe to opt out of the public-school system—a system that Harris has seriously malnourished, and critically destabilized in the process. Ultimately, the government knows it will save money for every student who leaves. Since funding is based on student enrolment, each exodus will reduce the public system’s available dollars. Let’s face it: this is just cost-cutting parading as educational policy.

Harris is playing a serious game of divide and conquer. First, he gutted the system; now he is out to balkanize. Initially, his announcement pleased leaders of religious schools. But within days, they, too, were unhappy, demanding further support—and arguing that they should be free of curriculum constraints.

In the end, tax credits are only meaningful to those with significant income. If the public-school system is reserved only for the poor, it will end up becoming a poorer system. And a poor education system will diminish us all.

Mr. Harris, I have a novel idea. How about reinvesting that half-billion back into public schools? You could start by offering remedial programs for all those who flunked their literacy tests this year. Or how about reinstating librarians to help with the literacy challenge? Who knows? You just might come up with a strong education system, one that no one wants to leave.

Should there be a tax credit for enrolling in private school?