Consensus on free choice in education

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In preparation for an impending national election, British Conservative Party leader David Cameron has promised in a key policy paper that his government would extend full funding to secular and faith-based independent schools. Is this a sure formula for political suicide?

Many Canadian conservatives might think so. They recall how Ontario Progressive Conservative leader John Tory led his party to crushing defeat in the 2007 provincial election, by promising that his government would restore just partial funding to independent, faith-based schools.

The idea made eminently good sense. After all, Ontario is the only province in the country that provides full funding for Catholic separate schools, but no funding at all for any other independent schools, faith-based or secular.

Nonetheless, Ontario Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty succeeded in scaring most voters into believing that the Conservatives’ plan for extending funding for faith-based schools would lead to “strife in the streets.” He said: “If you want the kind of Ontario where we invite children of different faiths to leave the publicly funded system and become sequestered and segregated in their own private schools, then they should vote for Mr. Tory.”

Coming from McGuinty, the argument was hypocritical, inasmuch as he and his wife “sequestered and segregated” all four of their children in Catholic separate schools. Moreover, McGuinty did not – and could not – cite any evidence that children educated in a faith-based school are any more likely to engage in violence and ethnic strife than children consigned to the secular public system.

What, though, about Britain? Is Labour Party Prime Minister Gordon Blair railing against the Conservatives’ promise to expand full funding for faith-based schools? Is he insisting that these schools will foster religious strife?

Not at all, and for good reason: It was the previous Labour Party government under the leadership of former prime minister Tony Blair that initiated full funding for independent secondary schools in 2000. To qualify for funding, the schools, known as academies, must be run by non-profit organizations that charge no tuition fees and abide by national curriculum guidelines.

The Labour Party continues to support and expand this program. Already, the fully funded independent schools have proven strikingly successful in raising scores on standardized tests of academic achievement, especially among deprived, inner-city students.

What, though, about Muslim students? Are they now segregated and sequestered in hate-filled madrassahs run by fanatical imams and financed by the taxpayers?

Definitely not. Of the 6,850 publicly funded, faith-based schools in England, the large majority are Church of England or Roman Catholic. Only seven are Muslim.

The Labour government is intent on expanding the number of Muslim and non-Muslim faith-based schools, confident that under strict regulation by the government’s Office for Standards in Education, none has, or ever can, come under the control of hate-mongering, religious fanatics.

As for Cameron, he is simply proposing to put “rocket boosters” under Labour’s program for independent schools and “bust up” the state monopoly on education. And he vows, if need be, to fight “big battles with the forces of resistance” within the “education establishment.”

What ranks among the biggest of those forces of resistance? The teachers’ unions, of course. Currently, in Plymouth, the National Union of Teachers is crying havoc over a proposal by the local education authority to transform two failing state schools into independent, non-unionized academies, one run by the University of Plymouth and the other by the Exeter Diocese of the Church of England.

Meanwhile, in Ontario, both the McGuinty Liberals and the Tory Conservatives are now content with a publicly funded education system that offers parents no choice but to send their children to a school operated by their local public- or separate-school monopoly. As for the New Democrats, they would abolish even the separate-school alternative.

Thus, in England, all of the major parties favour the expansion of parental choice in education. In Ontario, none do. When oh when will Ontario’s hidebound political leaders finally recognize that increased competition is the key to improving the quality of education for all children?

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