FAITH- BASED SCHOOLS
A provincial election candidate’s suggestion that Ontario do what B. C. has been doing well for 30 years — finance independent religious schools — has created a controversy not seen here
An election promise of public money for all faithbased schools has created a political firestorm in Ontario, but funding for religious and other independent schools has been the standard in B. C. for three decades.
Whether Catholic, Jewish, evangelical Christian, Muslim, Sikh — even a Mormon offshoot practicing polygamy — all groups with schools in B. C. have the right to partial government funding to promote their own religious, cultural, philosophical or pedagogical views in the classroom.
B. C. governments have long held that such funding is in keeping with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The rules are simple: Schools may not teach racial or ethnic superiority, religious intolerance or violence and they must deliver the B. C. curriculum if they want funding.
Of the 360 independent schools in B. C., only 19 have eschewed public funding, while 13 aren’t eligible because they cater mainly to international students.
Independent schools are free to supplement the curriculum as they see fit. The Vancouver Hebrew Academy, for example, teaches the Hebrew language, as well as Jewish laws, culture and history; the Dasmesh Punjabi School in Abbotsford teaches the Punjabi language and Sikh studies; the Iqra Muslim School in Surrey teaches the Arabic language and Islamic studies.
Most also teach a religious view of creation alongside required units on evolution in science class. Evangelical Christian schools, the fastest growing of all independent schools in B. C., tell students “ physical and living things are created by God and not merely nature, environment or natural resources.”
The government office that regulates independent schools has been dominated for more than a decade by evangelical Christians, including an inspector who wrote and sold textbooks championing creationism over evolution.
Only Catholic schools funded
In Ontario, Conservative leader John Tory had to run for cover after suggesting religious schools might teach creationism under his controversial $ 400- million proposal to extend funding to all faith- based schools.
Only Catholic schools in Ontario are publicly funded through an arrangement dating from Confederation.
Tory, who hopes to oust Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government in the Oct. 10 provincial election, had to issue a clarification hours later promising any mention of creationism would be restricted to religious classes.
Tory has said it’s a matter of fairness to treat all religions the same, but McGuinty argues funding for all faith- based schools would fragment society and drain money from public schools. The issue has dominated the campaign, with polls suggesting seven in 10 voters oppose the plan.
Unlike Ontario, there has been little controversy about the funding of B. C.’ s faith- based schools, except in two cases: the almost $ 1 million in taxpayers’ money spent each year on schools in the polygamous community of Bountiful, and a similar amount that’s given to Khalsa school in Surrey despite its highly publicized links to terrorists.
An issue that threatened to explode last year was a deal B. C. signed to settle a human- rights complaint, which included a promise to make all K- 12 curriculum gay friendly. Many religious groups were upset, however, those with independent schools were quietly assured by government that any changes would not affect them.
The main objections to the principle of independent school funding come from the B. C. Teachers’ Federation ( BCTF) and the Canadian Union of Public Employees ( CUPE), which represents some 25,000 workers in public schools.
“ We have a pretty heartfelt, idealistic commitment to public educat i o n ,” BCTF president Irene Lanzinger said in an interview. “ If you want something other than that, you should pay for it yourself.”
The BCTF usually directs its criticism at elite schools with hefty tuition fees and entrance exams, but those are few in number. The vast majority of independent schools in B. C. are faith- based, although there are also some Montessori, Waldorf, French, first nations and special education schools.
Enrolments in independent schools have been growing by an average of two per cent each year for five years, despite a steady decline in the number of B. C. school- aged children overall. More than 10 per cent of all students— some 66,000 children — are enrolled in independent schools, and in a few urban districts that percentage is almost doubled. Independent schools are busy with construction while public districts have closed 150 schools in five years.
The BCTF and CUPE say government support for independent schools is part of a dangerous trend towards privatization.
“ We [ have seen] the erosion of public school funding and an influx of funds and students into private schools,” CUPE president Barry O’Neill said in an e- mail to The Vancouver Sun.
“ This is particularly worrisome at a time, like we are in now, where we face declining student numbers.
“ Ontario has an opportunity to maintain an integrated and diverse pubic education system. Our advice is to hold the line on more funding for independent schools and not go the way of B. C.”
Independent schools in B. C. are eligible for 50 per cent of annual operating grants to public schools, but they receive no capital cost allowance. Government argues that ending such funding would prompt independent schools to raise tuition, which would force many of those students back into the public system and up education costs by half a billion dollars.
Last year, B. C. gave $ 211 million to independent schools, including firsttime grants to help them educate special needs students. Since their allotment is calculated as a percentage of per- pupil grants to public schools, it rises as public school enrolments fall. It also goes up every time public school unions negotiate a salary increase.
Historian Jean Barman, who has written extensively about B. C.’ s independent schools, said apart from union protests, there have been few complaints about independent school funding in B. C. and she is surprised by the Ontario outcry, especially given that one group of religious schools — Catholic — already receives public money.
“ There’s this notion, which the BCTF subscribes to . . . and has been played up big time in Ontario, that we have this common school experience. But of course it doesn’t exist,” she said in an interview.
Harro Van Brummelen, education dean at Trinity Western University in Langley, says even students in public schools have significantly different educational experiences.
“ Schools in west Vancouver tend to be quite different from the ones in east Vancouver, even though they get the same amount of funding.”
Van Brummelen disputes the contention religious schools and schools with different philosophies promote intolerance. Like other supporters, he says the success of independent schools is most obvious in the Netherlands, where more than twothirds of students attend private schools “ and it’s one of the most tolerant societies in the world.”
At Simon Fraser University, education dean Paul Shaker takes another view of the issue. He says public schools in the Western world are expected to promote shared societal values, but that’s not necessarily the case with independent schools.
“ When we promote people opting out of public schools, we’re introducing new ideologies — in force — to our children. We can do that as a society if we want to, but I don’t think we should be naive about it,” he said. “ Where will they learn the values and practices that are at the heart of our secular, democratic society?”
Shaker says the Bountiful schools are an example of how B. C.’ s policy can be abused.
While public funding of Bountiful schools has brought the system into question like never before, the Federation of Independent School Associations says the problem is an entrenched social condition in the community, not the schools. Fred Herfst, the association’s executive director, said the schools have regularly passed government inspections.
The Bountiful schools existed before government funding was available and are unlikely to fold if public money were to vanish, Herfst said. Withdrawing public funds could make the situation worse for students, he added, because “ you would no longer have an inspector with the right to go into those schools to see what’s going on.”
Independent school advocates suggest the Bountiful schools are far from the norm.
At the Iqra Islamic school, principal Faisal Ali says students are not isolated from society, even though they attend a Muslim school. They read newspapers, watch television, visit public libraries, play community sports, mix with other children after school, and have several nonMuslim teachers, he noted.
“ They are very much in the mainstream and they are very much a part of the fabric of the Canadian mosaic,” he said in an interview at the K- 8 school that has 352 students.
B. C.’ s first private school was founded in 1858, but independent schools were few in number and weren’t a political force until after the Second World War, when Dutch Calvinists settled in the Fraser Valley with the expectation they would give their children a religious education in government- funded schools.
In her book about the development of independent schools, Deprivatizing Private Education: the British Columbia Experience, Barman said the Dutch Calvinists, aided by U. S. missionaries, began pushing for recognition and later joined with Catholic schools and struggling elite schools to form the Federation of Independent School Associations ( FISA) in 1966.
Led by Gerry Ensing, of the Society of Christian Schools of B. C., FISA hired a public relations firm and began lobbying aggressively for government funding. They gained that right in 1977 and funding was expanded to 50 per cent in 1989. Since then, FISA has been regarded as a key stakeholder in the B. C. education system, although it has maintained a low- profile.
There have also been close ties between the association and the independent school inspector in Victoria. So close that Barman once wrote some inspectors have sounded “ more like an apologist for the private schools than their inspector.”
In an interview this week, she suggested that hasn’t changed. “ Inspectors are sympathetic to private schools. They’re not going to go in and read the riot act.”
Governments have appointed a string of evangelical Christians as inspectors and deputy inspectors. After his campaign for government funding, Ensing went to work for the independent schools branch in 1985 and was promoted to inspector.
When he retired in 1998, he was replaced by Jim Beeke, principal at Timothy Christian school in Chilliwack and author of a Bible doctrines series for children, teens and adults.
Beeke left government in 2005 to become the agent for two B. C.- certified schools in China. His successor, Susan Penner, was previously principal at White Rock Christian Academy, her deputy, Ed Vanderboom, was principal at Credo Christian high school in Langley, and her assistant deputy inspector, Theo Vandeweg, was also a principal at Timothy.
Barman said the office has been dominated by Christian inspectors at a time of exceptional growth among Christian schools in B. C. but added: “ I don’t pretend to understand it.”
Asked what impact evangelical Christians have had on the office, Herfst replied: “ Absolutely none.”
FISA’s willingness to accept partial funding rather than pushing for full funding may have saved B. C. from an Ontario- style scrap. Another important difference between B. C. and Ontario is the role of Catholic schools. Since they had no constitutional entitlements in B. C., they aligned themselves with other religious groups and strengthened the lobby.