Wendy Derrick quit a $23,000-a-year public-school teacher’s job for a position at a Montessori school paying $9,000 less because she wanted to teach at a pace “regulated by the child’s abilities, rather than his grade level.” Mark Kennedy, principal of Queensway Cathedral Christian School in Etobicoke, says parents want “a return to the basic firmer discipline and the setting of moral values.” Former NDP leader Stephen Lewis, who has two of his three children in private schools, says the public schools attended by his youngsters lacked both “challenge and stimulation.” For these, and a growing number of teachers, parents—and the students themselves—the $3.7-billiona-year Ontario public-school system is flunking the test.
There are now some 61,250 students attending 346 private schools of every shade, stripe and affiliation across the province—still only three per cent of
the total enrolment, but a 47-per-cent jump in a decade. Thirty-two more private schools have applied to open this year, while dozens of tax-supported schools may get the axe. And the contrast, in an era of declining enrolment, is a clear indication that something’s wrong with Ontario’s public education.
The growth of private schools represents a backlash by middle-class parents against a badly eroded public system, says education critic George Martell. A professor at York University, and founder and former editor of a national publication called This Magazine is About Schools, Martell says widespread discontent doesn’t end with parents. “There are damn few professors who don’t feel there are fewer and fewer students in universities capable of doing serious academic work because of poor schooling,” he says. Even Robert Jackson, one of the architects of Ontar-
io’s tax-supported system and head of Ontario’s Commission on Declining School Enrolments, says the growth reflects parental unhappiness as well as affluence. Adds Stephen Lewis: “My son, enrolled in Upper Canada College, reads Chaucer and Shakespeare in grade 7, while my daughter in the same grade at public school reads Willard and True Grit.”
“Status” schools such as Upper Canada College symbolize the private school to many. But the majority of private school students—about 43,000are enrolled in less costly schools emphasizing the 4Rs: reading, ’riting, ’rithmetic and religion. Another 18,250 are in non-religious schools such as those stressing languages, art or music. Martell says the belief that religion, discipline and academic excellence go hand-in-hand is pushing many parents to switch their children to tax-supported Catholic schools. The support is only extended to grade 10. This fall, Metropolitan Toronto Separate School Board officials were swamped with hundreds of applications from nonCatholic parents, but only 551 children could be accommodated.
Ironically, the trend to religious schooling is a return to the system existing in Upper Canada before Confederation. In the early 1800s, any parish that could produce 20 students and a building was entitled to a government grant. Later, under the guidance of a Methodist minister, Egerton Ryerson, a tax-supported, public-school system was created along with “separate” schools—now totally Roman Catholiccreated on request by various groups who wanted to keep their languages in the schools. From such a pluralistic beginning, Ontario moved toward the homogeneous. But other provinces are moving in the opposite direction. Last year, B.C. legislators agreed to provide grants of $500 annually per student to any nonprofit, private school in operation for five years. Alberta provides between $577 and $693 a year for threeyear-old schools. Saskatchewan pays
operating costs for private highschools, as well as a 10-per-cent grant toward building construction costs. Private schools in Quebec which provide 1,050 minutes of instruction time per week in French may get up to 80 per cent of the provincial average paid to them by the government. In addition, Catholic education is fully tax-supported to grade 13 in both languages.
Frustratped at efforts to obtain tax dollars, parents of 9,500 students enrolled in 63 Christian schools, many of which are affiliated with Christian Reformed Churches, are gearing for a court battle. Since 1975, some of the parents have deducted school fees from their incomes, as they do church offerings, in defiance of federal income tax authorities. Christian schools are run by individual school boards affiliated to the Ontario Association of Christian Schools. Members are Calvinists who believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible: To Calvinists, education and religion are inseparable. Harmen Vander Meulen of Sarnia is typical of these parents. Tax officials argue that school fees are not charitable donations, but are purchases for education. But, counters Vander Meulen, principal of Lambton Christian High School, school fees cannot buy education any more than offerings in church buy salvation. Alliance lawyer Wietse Posthumus says Ottawa wants parents to launch a test case in federal tax courts. “So far only 250 parents receive reassessments reducing writeoffs.” But thousands more wait in the wings and have written off fees since 1975.
Writeoffs for religious schools could speed up the rapid growth of schools such as Queensway Cathedral Christian School in Etobicoke, linked to the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. These churches are fundamentalist in theology, like the Calvinists. Spankings are administered to children who seriously misbehave, says Queensway principal Mark Kennedy, who also believes in uni-
forms and begins assigning homework in grade 1. “Parents are fed up with public schools and want a return to the basics, firmer discipline and the setting of moral values,” he says. “The public school subscribes to a ‘secular humanism’ which teaches that one person’s values are no more valid than another’s.”
“Parents must seek religious alternatives because the mosaic of different immigrant groups and religious beliefs in our society has not reached into our schools,” says Lyle McBurney, executive director of the Ontario Association of Alternative and Independent Schools. His group was formed to promote the interests of the independent schools. Their efforts paid off last year when Queen’s Park agreed to let about $625,000 in federal incentive payments for French go directly to Ontario’s independent schools. For four years, the province pocketed all these per capita funds and distributed them among its schools.
That’s only the beginning of political changes, pledges Frank McKernan, president of the Association of Catholic High School Boards of Ontario, whose 91 private Catholic high-schools contain some 53,000 students. Anger is spreading among parents, he says. “This has cost the Conservatives plenty of votes.” The Ontario government, meanwhile, appears intransigent. Education Minister Bette Stephenson says the province cannot afford to transfer funds from its declining public school system to private schools. “If there was a depletion of funding of any major proportion, our current financial problems would be magnified greatly and the public school system would suffer unduly,” she said. With or without government help, however, private school administrators like Mark Kennedy forecast a rosy future for their schools. “Parents will continue to seek an alternative to public schools,” he says, “they are fed up with the malarkey that public schools are as good as ever.”
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