The fallout from the recent controversy over the creation of gay-straight alliance clubs (GSAs) in Ontario’s publicly funded Catholic school system should give pause to those seeking funding – in the name of fairness – for their own faith-based schools.
It should, but it probably won’t.
The so-called anti-bullying bill, which seeks to end bullying in publicly funded schools, passed in the legislature earlier this week. Catholic leaders – including the Archbishop of Toronto, Cardinal Thomas Collins – had opposed it because it allows students to set up GSAs in schools and requires the schools to permit them, and for them to be named as such if students prefer it.
The whole idea was to provide safe spaces for gay students in schools, in order to prevent bullying and the kind of high-profile suicides that prompted the legislation in the first place. But Catholic leaders said the move amounted to an attack on freedom of religion.
The Liberal government denied Tory opposition charges that it has been using the issue of GSAs to try to open a debate about the $7 billion in annual public funding for Ontario’s Catholic schools.
The claim seems to be borne out by the fact the recent Drummond Report –which went over government operations in minute detail with an eye to finding as many budgetary savings as possible – passed over some rather low-hanging fruit in the form of Catholic schools and their parallel public educational bureaucracy. Some estimates put the annual savings from folding the Catholic system into the public one at a whopping $1 billion annually.
But regardless of whether or not the government intended to pick a fight over Catholic school funding, the war may already have begun: a new poll taken June 4 found that 48 per cent of Ontarians oppose Catholic school funding, while 43 per cent favour it (eight per cent were unsure).
In light of the intolerance shown by Catholic leaders around the issue of GSAs, the conclusion many people seem to be coming to is that the best way to alleviate the unfairness in the school system isn’t to extend public money to other faith-based schools, but to do what Newfoundland did and seek a constitutional amendment to end funding for Catholic schools.
Under the current circumstances, the chances of faith-based schools getting provincial funding are slim.
If the Catholic schools lose their funding, the chances would be nil (although as Toronto Star provincial affairs columnist Martin Regg Cohn argues, Catholic schools are likely here to stay).
In the meantime, the average cost of elementary Jewish day school is more than $13,000 a year and is rising faster than the rate of inflation, while tuition for the main community high school is rapidly approaching $25,000.
It’s a huge financial burden for many families, and it has a negative and distorting effect on Jewish life, particularly for middle class families.
Subsidies are available, but they’re mainly geared to low-income earners. As well, the process of applying for a subsidy is invasive, with applicants’ family budgets scrutinized in minute detail by committees often made up of fellow parents.
Something needs to be done, or more and more kids will start to leave the Jewish day school system.
In Toronto, where most of Ontario’s Jewish day schools are located and where the cost of living is high, the exodus may already have begun.
One source close to the issue says that enrolment at Toronto’s main community high school, the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, has dropped to 1,370 this year from around 1,550 two or three years ago, a decrease of more than 10 per cent. The source also said the school seems to be expecting even lower numbers next year, because it’s laying off non-tenured faculty.
Anecdotally, numbers reportedly are down at some elementary schools as well, the source said.
The poor economy is exacerbating the problem, as is the fact the current cohort of parents with school-age kids is smaller than that of their Baby Boomer predecessors.
But the fact remains that in an expensive city like Toronto (never mind one like Vancouver or New York), tuition for three kids in day school can exceed $50,000 a year, which is high even for families with a gross income of $150,000 or more. If one or more kids are in high school, the cost can be even more back-breaking.
As the uproar over GSAs in Catholic schools was going on, the Canadian Jewish News invited four panelists to weigh in on the subject of whether, in light of current realities, the Jewish community should continue to seek government funding for faith-based schools.
Three of the four said yes. One, the head of a group lobbying for funding from the province, reasoned that it’s a matter of fairness and that the political climate could change one day. Another, the head of a mid-sized day school, mentioned that other jurisdictions fund faith-based schools in one form or another, citing in particular charter schools in the United States.
The representative from UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, which provides $10 million in tuition subsidies annually, said that lobbying the province should continue, but at the same time, Jewish charitable foundations and other players need to try to find ways to lower fees.
Only the rabbi on the panel, speaking mainly in his capacity as a young father of three small kids, argued that the community should go it alone, because finding a solution to the problem can’t wait and reality suggests provincial cash isn’t coming soon.
Unfortunately, it’s very likely that if the community continues to pursue funding from the province, it could be waiting a very long time, and not just because the GSA issue may have put Catholic funding at risk.
Recall that former provincial Conservative leader John Tory, the only political leader in the last 25 years to advocate that public funding be extended to faith-based schools, lost the 2007 election on this very issue.
The Jewish community should probably take the hint offered by Tory’s electoral drubbing and the PR disaster now befalling Catholic schools. The issue of funding is so politically radioactive that we need to find our own solution to the tuition fee problem.
The current political climate notwithstanding, there are other good reasons to not seek government funding.
Does the Jewish community – or do the Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and other communities – want to give up control of school curricula? To its credit, TanebaumCHAT has already instituted a GSA. But would other more religious schools want to do the same? And would faith-based schools want their curricula to become subject to government approval in exchange for funding? Some would and some wouldn’t, which would only partially solve the problem.
Furthermore, would faith communities want to cede administrative control of their school systems to the province, leaving it to the government to determine whether there are too many schools or too many school systems and thus too much administrative bureaucracy? And would schools from different faith or ethnic communities accept being lumped together under one administrative bureaucracy overseen by the Ministry of Education? Again, some would and some wouldn’t.
The argument that there are too many Jewish schools and too much bureaucracy – thus driving up tuition fees – has already been made in Toronto. The last 20 years have seen the fragmentation of the Jewish school system, which has grown from four or five choices in the 1970s and 1980s to more than 10 today, as boutique schools have sprouted up to cater to various educational philosophies and religious ideologies.
Finally, funding from the state is subject to political exigencies that are beyond the community’s control. What would happen if funding were to be extended now only to be yanked away in the future, for whatever reason?
The good news is that the solution to the funding problem is apparently close at hand, and it’s of the do-it-yourself variety.
Writing recently in the Canadian Jewish News, columnist Rabbi Jay Kelman, while acknowledging that it would cost $100 million a year to cut day school tuition in half, argued “that not one additional penny needs to be raised to enable Jewish education to be free in Toronto.”
He explained the problem this way: “With millions being spent on communal infrastructure [a reference to three large Jewish community campuses being built or refurbished in the Toronto area], it’s not certain that enough Jews will care 30 years from now to make use of all our wonderful new facilities. I’m well aware that the Toronto community gives more support to Jewish education than any other and that there are many pressing needs besides education. So as we hear repeatedly, there just isn’t enough money to solve this crisis. After all, how many times can we go back to the same few very wealthy and very generous people and ask for more?”
But, Kelman said, “A perusal of available public records shows that billions of dollars are sitting in charitable foundations of well-known Jewish philanthropists. That money has already been given away. Unfortunately, very little of it actually goes to charity each year, as capital preservation reigns supreme. If we could change that mindset, the crisis would be solved with the stroke of a pen.”
This implies eating away at capital, something foundations are loathe to do, preferring instead to use interest and investment income to ensure that funds are available to pay for future needs.
Kelman has an answer for that potential objection.
“The amounts sitting in foundations are so large that all priorities can be paid for, provided one does not feel that capital must be preserved indefinitely. Furthermore… as a condition of benefiting from greatly lowered (or free) day school fees, parents can be required to buy life insurance plans at a fraction of the cost of day school fees, the proceeds of which would replenish any ‘capital depletion.’ ”
This is an idea worth exploring, although it does have some drawbacks.
The main one is the reluctance of foundations to whittle down their capital reserves. Another is that there’s a bias in the community against subsidizing the middle class. (This mirrors a larger neoliberal trend in western society in which the middle class is being squeezed and the gap between super-rich and very poor continues to widen.)
But Kelman’s idea won’t fly as long as the Jewish community lobbies for government funding that’s unlikely to ever materialize.
Of course, if the Jewish community were to pursue Kelman’s plan, it wouldn’t need state subsidies for its schools.
Pardon the pun, but it’s time to take that leap of faith.