Ontario parents often ask if there are any tax considerations to offset private school fees or any subsidies offered by the government.  Given that their taxes are directed towards supporting the public system whether their child attends or not, this is a legitimate question.  The short answer is that there are none.  Curiously, Ontario is the only province in Canada that does not fund private schools in one form or another.  British Columbia provides subsidies in two tiers of 35%  to  50%, Alberta up to 60%, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Quebec up to 50%.  So why is this?  The answer, it appears,  involves self-interest, money and political influence.

In 2003 the Ontario Liberals, in keeping with their election promise to repeal the tax credits for private school supporters introduced by the Conservatives, put forward a bill to repeal those tax credits on their first day in legislature.   This was one of the promises that they kept.  Why was this an issue of sufficient importance in Ontario to require this level of election exposure and priority of legislative attention?  Clearly it was intended to attract votes not from the general population but specifically from a militant block who would perceive this issue as being a top priority and overwhelmingly support it.

The Ontario Teachers Federation or OTF possesses assets in the amount of some 200 billion dollars and is Canada’s largest single profession pension plan.  The Ontario budget for 20222-2023 for public education amounted to 26.3 billion dollars .  Between 2020 and 2021 the number of employees on the posted Sunshine List of salaries in excess of $100,00.00 per year for the Toronto District School Board or TDSB alone rose from 3,429 to 10,549 members.  Despite the dwindling number of students in Ontario and the closing of many local schools, the cost of education has continued to increase and threatens to continue.  Hundreds of thousands of teachers and others are directly or indirectly employed in the public educational system.  But however much money is spent, it is never enough.  Indeed, the messaging is very clear that according to vested interests the public system is underfunded and that more money is needed to meet the system’s needs.  As such, the Conservative party is associated with cutbacks, cost reductions and has therefore been consistently characterized as being opposed to giving the system the money that it needs to do its job.

The published mission statement of the TDSB sounds impressive indeed.  It is “To enable all students to reach high levels of achievement and well-being and to acquire the knowledge, skills and values they need to become responsible, contributing members of a democratic and sustainable society.”  However, it is always important to balance rhetoric against substance.  To use the public system’s own imposed standard of a rubric against which to measure student achievement relative to “learning outcomes”,  how does the public system fare?  But then who is in a position to assess this and proclaim its level of success in any objective and meaningful manner.  Surely not the system itself.  However, that is in fact the reality of the situation . The assessment of the success of the system is offered by the system itself without reference to any meaningful external scale.  Is this not similar to asking every student to determine their own merit without tests or examinations?  However, by itself it is suggestive that despite what can only be viewed as the disincentives in Ontario for parents to support private education, that support continues to increase evidenced by the growing number of private schools and the growing attendance in them..

The explanation for the opposition to the ‘public’ funding of private schools that is put forward is in the characterization that private education is based upon exclusivity and a lack of egalitarian spirit.  The supporters are therefore either snobs or misguided consumers who fail to recognize the strengths of the public system.  You may ask yourselves therefore if you identify with this characterization.  Moreover, is it not odd that such hostility towards private education exhibits itself in the province with the largest funding and number of direct stakeholders in delivering that service apparently threatened by private competition?  The growth of private alternatives devoid of financial incentives is a clear example of parents voting with their feet.  Thus the threat of private alternatives is ultimately a question of money.  In November of 2022 in British Columbia the headline appeared “BC Public Schools Facing Budget Shortfalls As Private Schools Receive Half a Billion in Public Subsidies”.  The article goes on to explain “Teachers voice concern over ‘deep’ cuts as experts question why BC diverts hundreds of millions in public resources to the private school system”.  One wonders of course who these experts are and then the question also arises if the pubic system is there to ultimately serve the interests of students or employees?    

School boards receive funding on a per student basis.  This is typically 70% from the respective province and 30% from municipalities in terms of property tax.  School boards recently became increasingly interested in attracting international students to boost their numbers and bring money directly to their coffers.  As such, the TDSB for example took to actively recruiting international students into the system.  For some time they not only received the funds directly from the students themselves but also from the government in terns of a per capita head count,  In 2019-20 the government recognizing this double dipping imposed a clawback of $1,300.00 per student to be reduced from the grants provided.  International students continue to be actively recruited by school boards throughout most of Canada.  This is done mostly though agents.  The TDSB as an example pays 15% of the tuition fees to agents for the first year and 10% per year thereafter should they re-enrol.  This is apparently being increased to 18% as of next year.  Prior to covid, the TDSB identified having 2,107 international students enrolled which dropped to 949 in 2021-22.  Numbers have moved up over the last year but are no where near what they were previously.  

The introduction of international students into the public system is framed in highly altruistic terms such as encouraging diversity and benefiting students wanting to study in Canada.  Clearly Toronto is in need of diversity.  Housing is arranged either through independent agencies who recruit students or through a number of independent corporations arranging homestay  programs with families.  These are touted as excellent ways for international students to be accepted within the Canadian community.  No doubt in a few cases this is true.  In the majority of cases however, the homestay programs lack parental concern and supervision and are indeed largely powerless to enforce rules or restrictions should they take the effort to do so.  Once again, the balance self-interest and money determines much of human behaviour.

According to our Ministry of Education, the history of educational theory and practice in this province has been one of continuous improvement building inexorably upon previous success.  Each group of reforms touted as progressive makes things better and improves the delivery of service.  But again, according to who and with what evidence or external reference?  The majority of these reforms involve a focus upon third party optics and political correctness and are therefore reducible to rhetoric over reason.  As a political organ, ministries are supposed to serve the interests of the public at large and be responsible to the government in power.  However, government ministries have a relatively stable number of employees who remain in their position regardless of the government at the time.  The policies generated therefore represent a limited hybrid between political incentives imposed from above and internal adherence to ‘progressive’ standards normally imported from America.  As such, there is a remarkable consistency between philosophies and approaches throughout Canada and the USA but with some provincial variation.  In many instances these revisions in policy and practice are initiated just as their weaknesses start to become apparent south of the border.  This was the case for example with the US lead in abandoning cursive writing in elementary schools but there are many other examples.

In truth, the public educational system has taken upon itself a vast variety of responsibilities once considered to be the sacred purview of the family.  Schools have taken over the responsibilities of parents  but not their accountability and one could even argue that they  have indeed actively undermined parenting.  Whereas it was the the ongoing assumption by many that that the role of schools was to support parents it is now clearly the role of parents to support schools who support their children.  Given that many of those values, attitudes and priorities are no longer in keeping with those of the parents, there is little choice but to seek alternatives. Students are regarded in the public system as clients not their parents.  Some appeasement is offered to avoid where possible outright hostility.  However, invariably the schools position is to support the student over the parent and to underscore the rights of the former over the latter.  Parents should not interfere, put pressure on or dictate to their children in matters of academics or post-secondary plans and careers.  They are to support the dreams of their children to follow their own path regardless of how delusional such ideas may be.  Hence a student that I met some years ago with failing grades and applied/modified courses told me of his plan to enter the University of Waterloo and study computer engineering.  In this case, his ‘plan’ was equatable with ‘dream’ which was equally equatable with ‘delusion’.  Nobody had dared to confront him with the reality of his situation for fear of making him sad.  When I realistically outlined his situation, he expressed disbelief and was then shocked and horrified to learn that he could not attend any university program subject to his willingness to attend and his parents ability to pay.  Indeed, he confronted the situation with disbelief and had to be provided with hard facts to correct his opinion.  That student was subsequently re-streamed, spent an additional year in high school and ultimately gained university admission.

In point of fact, the school system itself and the peer culture encouraged within it has created many of the problems that increasingly frustrate those parents who believe in actually parenting.  They find their beliefs and values undermined and ridiculed.  They become the outliers and the alienation between parent and child leads inexorably towards conflict and confusion.  They discover that their  child’s rights exceed their own and they are powerless to address situations constructively.  In such cases, parents increasingly feel powerless and indeed victims of a system that fails them as well as their children.

Apart from presenting a monopoly whose only escape is to pay significant amounts of money for those who are capable, it became apparent during covid that one of the primary roles of public education is that of a daycare.  Disruptions and the inconveniences resulting from strikes and the threat of strikes has generated funding increases based upon fear.  Given that unlike the the 1950’s and 60’s most marriages and families involve both partners working, it is no small matter to have to deal with these situations when they arise.  Indeed, given the existing economy, having both partners equally employed has become necessary to meet expenses.  The prospect of strikes threatens not only an interruption in student learning, but also a major financial burden given the additional expenses involved or a threat to the livelihood of the parents.  This implicit coercion by what is in essence an essential service, has been used repeatedly to serve self-interest in a most compelling manner.  

It remains to be seen therefore if the ultimate objective of the system as it exists is to serve students, to serve taxpayers or to serve the interests of those employed within it.  Is there any legitimate reason to have a school day that does not conform to the hours of a regular work day or to have long holidays so that children can go home to help their family on the farm?  Is there any reason why summer school is not mandatory to help students who fall behind to catch up or enrich their education?  Is there any reason why children should not experience failure as well as success?  Is there any reason why children should not be aware of their efforts and abilities relative to others?  

I became a headmaster of a private preparatory school in Toronto in 1983 after leaving my university position.  I had exclusive power to hire and fire staff.  I quickly learned that poor teachers were a liability not only in terms of the students they taught but also their more accomplished colleagues and the existence of the school itself.  I therefore started to view my staff as I would a professional basketball team.  As the school only accepted students into a pre-university program in Grade 12, I quickly found that teachers with advanced degrees were often better able to prepare students for the expectations of university than those with a pass BA and an OTC (Ontario Teacher’s Certificate).  Those who had personally exhibited a genuine love of leaning in pursuit of their studies were seemingly better able to impart that to their students.  As a result, more than half of my teaching staff had Ph.D.’s or advanced degrees .  I found that teachers with OTC’s offered no guarantee of professionalism or competency and that the true measure of a good teacher was best based upon personality plus knowledge.  The resulting staff was exemplary and there was a true sense of unity based upon the realization of a common commitment to learning and commensurately with teaching.  When a decade later I became the headmaster of a unionized (OPSEU) private secondary school, I found that I was forced to offer the teaching of calculus during the summer to the English teacher who thankfully declined. Longevity of employment outweighed performance and any assessment of performance was severely impeded.  After two years, I could stand it no longer.

Private schools are ultimately accountable to their clients for their continued existence.  That existence depends upon fulfilling promises and being accountable.  Schools that fail to do so fail.  The public system has no such safeguards to measure service and as such are largely unaccountable.  Moreover their public funding and guaranteed employment engenders a sense of entitlement and complacency only enjoyed by other groups with similar funding.  The central question remains whether or not the actual mission is to serve clients or serve themselves.  I am not suggesting that the public system is devoid of merit or that there are no good people involved within it.  However, I think that it is equally unrealistic to assert that self-interest is not an overwhelming sentiment of the majority of its stakeholders,  Public money may be public but its origins are private citizens and as such should serve their interests rather than those of specific interest groups who absorb those funds without a commensurate level of contribution to the public at large.

Private schools provide healthy alternatives and approaches in keeping with the philosophy of a free market economy where the consumer gets to determine the quality of a product and how it satisfies their needs.  The failure of communism is universally equated with the lack of competition inherent in that system and its economic consequences.  If diversity is so desirable as we are so often told it is, why not encourage it in meaningful ways by viewing differences as potential sources of strength rather than has threatening competition.  

If the diversification of educational alternatives benefits students surely they are the priority.  Moreover if there is increased accountability provided in terms of promises made and actually kept this can only be of ultimate benefit to society.

Therefore, if any of you living in Ontario wonder why there is no government support in place to support your choice of a private alternative, it has not been through a want of trying and nor through the absence of an active lobby of resistance.  Should private schools be encouraged through financial incentives?  If we are to take the push for diversity seriously, the answer can only be yes.  The public system has increasingly become a top down arm of socialization rather than education in the narrow sense of reading, writing and arithmetic.  Increasingly the push has been to endorse the politically correct read ‘right’ opinions rather than helping to develop the cognitive skill sets that allow each individual the freedom to reach those opinions.  

These skill sets involve the development of critical thinking skills as well as a basic background of knowledge within which to frame inquiry.  It is important to have a mental landscape within which to frame the acquisition of knowledge.  For this reason it was advocated that there should be a basic core curriculum of information that everyone should know in order to accomplish this.  It also stands to reason that schools should be accountable as should the students they teach.  A monolithic system provides a top down form of bureaucratic control whose ultimate objective can only be to promote mediocrity as opposed to meritocracy.  It becomes indeed the very antithesis of the diversity that it claims to espouse.

Educational innovation can only take place fully in an open market situation where parents can actively judge for themselves the value of the offering in terms of promises made and promises kept.  A mission statement such as appears for the TDSB is aspirational but provides no explanation as to how these objectives will be achieved and what measurements are in place to be able to judge their relative success. It is therefore ultimately meaningless and feeds into the general view growing by the day that words uttered by those who have power or are in power are meaningless.

 Should the values of the family constitute a bottom up process to reflect those values on a larger scale or should values be a top down process imposed upon the families themselves?

At some point in time public and private education was ultimately accountable in terms of standardized tests in which basic skills were measured as well as a command of basic facts.  Such tests did not test opinion as much as they tested the ability to form opinions rooted in a grasp of basic facts.  Modern trends have increasingly reversed this process.  Government ministries of education are increasingly concerned with how lessons are taught and the inherent meaning or messaging behind what is taught as a social value defined by them.  Ironically older systems involved much less of this and yet produced literacy rates exceeding those that are current.  Abraham Lincoln purportedly wrote homework on the back of a shovel with chalk and attended a one room school house.  Apparently without the benefit a a smart board or a tablet he was able to produce the Gettysburg Address.  Equally, the shrinking vocabulary of modern times renders many books printed fifty years ago unreadable because of vocabulary and the use of words no longer in common usage.  One need look only at a comparison of school textbooks over the last twenty years to see increased use of pictures, coloured charts or diagrams and bullet form text.  Curiously also is the fact that with fewer and fewer words in circulation, the ability to express complex thoughts and feelings is ultimately reduced when language is not available to express them.  A dumbing down of the general population is the inevitable result where feelings govern thoughts and emotions push towards conflict and polarization.

It is time to reverse this process.  Education as the process whereby human beings acquire and transmit knowledge through experience is fundamental to humanity and increasingly fundamental to its survival both on a personal and global level.