Provincial funding should not be rescinded from religious schools that depend on it for its function
Updated: Mar 29, 2021
Opinion by Maximillian Lee
This opinion piece is part of Kroeger Policy Review's first issue on Race, Religion, and Culture. The full issue is available here.
To me, Canada is a nation that must strive to strike a fair balance between plurality and reasonable limitation of plurality for social cohesion. Part of that problem, burdened by the provinces, is religious or faith-based schooling.
Parents and caregivers must decide which kind of school is best for their child or dependant at critical moments in their lives, such as when choosing an elementary or secondary school to attend. In a free, multicultural society like Canada, there are going to be several reasons, one of which being religion, that someone may base their choice on what kind of education is right for their child.
Since this freedom of choice and access is guaranteed under our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, there is a moral obligation of the state to allocate resources towards an educational institution that fulfills that right.
Essentially, I believe that religious schools should receive provincial funding if it is critical to the maintenance of that institution. This wouldn’t include all religious schools, of course. Ones that are self-sustainable without provincial funding should not need to be funded publicly. This is to account for the problem of already-affluent schools receiving funds that they themselves don’t need, where other schools in the same district require more investment. No school should have to be worried about resources.
Regardless, the debate surrounding defunding religious schools has been a cornerstone of finding a key balance between the secularization of education and the respect of religious education freedoms.
When considering the financial, moral, and cultural value of primary and secondary education in this context, I posit that two clear divisions of structural systems arise. The first division is between public and private schools, and the second between secular and religious schools. There are also other divisions such as ones based on accessibility, language, and specialization of academic focus. One may find these intersecting with the prior two public/private and secular/religious distinctions that together account for the diversity of children in the school system. In debate, the first two distinctions have been prominent.
All factors are important, however, and it is unacceptable that there are public schools that have substandard access to educational resources. I would like to raise the point that this difference in inequality is more than just a distinction of religion and secularism; it is that the very geographical districts of families that comprise the student population have various intersecting factors such as race, gender, and class in addition to religion.
I myself attended an all-boys, private Catholic high school called Vancouver College as a continuation of values that are important to my immigrant family. My school provided me with all
the resources I needed to succeed, more so than many public schools, based on its privatization. There were many other private schools that enjoyed the same benefits at varying degrees. Saint George’s school, for example, is a very expensive and prestigious secular private school also located in Vancouver that had immensely more resources than my religious private school did. Prestigious and secular all-girls schools like Crofton House and York House had differences in wealth as well. Likewise, Vancouver College and its sister school, Little Flower Academy, are more affluent than other religious schools in Vancouver like Saint Patrick.
Moving on to other religions and special needs, Talmud Torah, a prestigious, private Jewish school, is just a ten-minute walk up Oak Street from Eric Hamber, a public high school, which is also a mere fifteen minute walk from Vancouver College itself. None of these schools are very far away from l’Ecole Bilangue, a French immersion public elementary school.
My point in taking you on this quick journey through the ecosystem of my hometown’s school district is that all these schools coincide with the demographics of each district. Religious schools wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a demand for it. Vancouver College, for example, has such a good reputation that there are many students that get driven over an hour in traffic in the early morning from White Rock or North Delta to attend the Catholic school.
French immersion programs wouldn’t exist if nobody spoke French, and heavily-invested-in public school programs like mini schools, AP, and specializations don’t exist without people paying tax to publicly fund them. Vancouver is a populous, business-friendly city that receives large amounts of international investment and international students.
Not all public schools in Canada are invested in equally; some districts have more privilege than others. Public elementary schools in suburban Vancouver are significantly better off than those where my roommate is from in Rexdale.
This inequality needs to be fixed, and I support the reallocation of resources from private or religious schools, but not at the significant expense of their function. If not for respect to religious freedoms, then consider for utility in and of itself. A public student costs the province more than a private religious student; this is reflected in the percent of which the province funds private schools in relation to its budget. So, if the question is about efficient and fair allocation of provincial education budgets, the influx of new public students from private or religious schools should be considered, as an increase in tuition could make religious education less affordable for households. Too many new public students would effectively cancel out the benefits of more resource allocation to public schools within that district.
I would like to see a fair, balanced allocation of resources within provincial school districts from wealthy schools, religious or not, to underfunded schools, religious or not. The debate about defunding or funding these schools is tired and it’s a bait in and of itself that has no standing when religious rights to education are at risk.