By Michael Taube and Paul Tuns
The Interim

On November 5, 1999, the United Nations criticized Ontario’s funding of Catholic elementary and high schools, claiming it was discriminatory. It gave the government 90 days to address the issue. Ontario Education Minister Janet Ecker said separate schools would continue to get equal funding. She also dismissed the idea of funding all denominations.

Although the UN can do nothing more than voice its complaint, the ruling has provided an excellent opportunity for Ontario to advance real education reform by eliminating school funding of public and separate Catholic school systems. This can be accomplished by providing school vouchers for parents who want to send their children to religious schools, no matter what their faith.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee heard a complaint from Arieh Waldman, a Toronto man who paid nearly $100,000 to send his two sons to Jewish day schools. The Supreme Court of Canada, which had earlier heard the case, said that Section 93 of the Constitution Act, 1867 guarantees the right to separate Catholic schools in Ontario. Indeed, the provision of separate religious schools – for then public schools were primarily Protestant – was an important compromise that led to Confederation.

Not surprisingly, critics of the two publicly funded school systems are displeased with the government’s refusal to re-examine the issue. But critics offer one of two solutions: Either the government must stop funding Catholic schools or it must fund all religious schools.

Neither of these options is realistic or desirable. The elimination of funding for separate schools would face a long and costly court challenge that would likely fail on constitutional grounds. Funding all schools would also be costly and lead to even more bureaucracy.

Thus, Ontario should consider another alternative: School vouchers.

It is time for the government to consider the use of privately funded school vouchers to create more cost-effective school choice for students, parents and teachers. And perhaps, just perhaps, this noble concept will keep the United Nations out of our education affairs in Ontario once and for all.

Private vouchers are a popular and successful education tool in the United States. They were originally designed as an aid for lower-income families to help their children get educated in private and religious institutions of all denominations. As J. Patrick Rooney, chairman of the Golden Rule Insurance Co. and a well-known voucher advocate, often called this strategy, it was a “hand up, not a handout.”

The theory behind the voucher is simple. Most private voucher programs pay partial tuition costs – usually around half – while the parents pay for the balance owing. Adam Meyerson, vice-president for educational affairs at the Heritage Foundation, an American conservative think-tank, noted that this strategy might sound harsh for families with a low combined personal income. However, when these parents “have to scrimp and save to pay tuition, they think of education as an investment.”

So, parents will work harder, and take more of an interest in their children’s education. In return, children will take their schooling more seriously when they realize the financial burden that their parents have taken on to give them a better education. Vouchers will lead to all participants having a greater stake in our children’s education.

Sure, there will still be bills to pay. But parents will be in full control of the vouchers, not arrogant public school administrators or anti-education reformers. And that would benefit religious schools and comfort parents of strong religious belief. The education bureaucracy would not be able to limit the religious teachings or otherwise force such institutions to “water down” their beliefs and practices because the bureaucracy would not entirely control the funding. That means when Biblical teaching conflicts with the politically-correct ethos of the education blob, Biblical teaching can be protected.

Under the private voucher system, everyone wins, and the benefits are enormous. In terms of the Ontario education system, the use of private vouchers would be a welcome relief to the red tape we currently face in public education. There would no longer be the need for strict public funding of Catholic schools alone. Rather, one efficient education system would be created that would benefit not only Catholics, but also Protestants, Jews, Muslims and numerous other religious groups.

The United Nations had no right to butt in to our affairs. However, it was right about one thing – the nature of government funding is unequal in Ontario. But rather than attack Catholic schools in an “all or nothing” gambit, we should fix the problem at the heart of the matter. For in truth, it is the public purse that has caused all of our education woes.

Michael Taube is a public affairs analyst and commentator. Paul Tuns is a member of the editorial advisory board of The Interim. A different version of this column originally appeared in the Hamilton Spectator.