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Private School Fee Deductions
March 21, 2019
With the impending election and a changing political landscape, I’ve been thinking about my options coming up, and in particular evaluating the Conservatives under Andrew Scheer.
There are two things in their policies that are barriers for me: the first is their objection the carbon tax, which as a small ‘l’ liberal I see as the market-friendly, less intrusive way for us to achieve our Paris commitments, provided it is offset by the reduction of another consumption tax, such as the HST, so that it does not burden those least able to afford it, but still prices pollution. However, this is not a deal breaker, provided there is a realistic plan to meet the Paris targets, as I understand that the carbon tax is a hard sell, and some regulations and incentives will be necessary in any case.
As to the second, I have written off the Tories since Andrew Scheer came up with the idea to give people tax deductions for private school fees. I had the chance to re-examine my position on this when I spent some time recently with Gord Phippen, who operates a very successful and effective Montessori school in affluent Oakville, which teaches children from kindergarten to grade 8. The issue has greater relevance with the efforts currently being made by the Provincial government to reduce investment in public education.
I went to a very elite private school, St. Andrew’s College, because my father taught there, and I do think it gave me some advantages. My daughter went to public schools but also spent two years at Appleby College and one at MEI, and again I think they both had something to offer that the public system could not. While every school can have great teachers and less effective ones, private schools have a freedom to offer an experience that represents the belief systems of the founders or principals and aligns with the values and priorities of some parents. Montessori and Waldorf are just two examples of innovative approaches to schooling that can really add to the educational experience a child has. Again, as a small ‘l’ liberal, I think having the choice to seek out an education that you believe will better help your child have a fulfilling life is part of living in a free country. For liberals like me, freedom should end only when it impinges on the freedoms of others, so if someone wants to found a school they believe can prepare people better for life, either as a foundation or for profit, and they can both meet the educational standards of the province and attract a clientele, then they should be able to do so. And as my friend Gord points out, preparation for life cannot be reduced to academic success as measured by marks.
Many of the greatest innovations in public education were first mooted in independent schools (remember Summerhill?), with the nimbleness of scale to try new things without risking children’s development in the process. In fact, public education, in order to adapt and improve to changing social and economic conditions, needs the competition of private education to stimulate advancement.
Why then, am I so opposed to the idea of giving parents a tax break for private school fees? After all, everyone, including people with no children, pays separate education taxes to support public education, on the basis that an educated citizenry is good for everyone both in terms of prosperity and of a functioning democracy. (As an entrepreneur, I know first- hand the value of an educated workforce not limited to the children of the wealthy.) And we already allow parents to deduct some of the fees they pay as child care costs, given the extra time children spend at school for extracurricular activities in some private schools.
The overriding reason is that good public education is not something that can be taken for granted. It is a critical building block for a sustainable society, yet among English speaking countries, few do it well. In the United Kingdom, privately or quasi-privately educated children dominate the places won in the best Universities, and it is not an exaggeration to say that the products of private education dominate the political and business elites of the country. The same is true of the United States, where the price of a good education can be paid directly by fees to schools, or indirectly by high real estate costs that create a tax base supporting good “public” schools. (Here in Ontario, since the Harris government, while education taxes are collected locally, they are redistributed across the Province equally per student, with supplements for such things as high poverty rates or high numbers of second language learners.)
Canada performs much better than either of these on any measure of social mobility, and in particular in the chance for a child born into the bottom socio-economic quintile to attain the top two quintiles in his or her lifetime. It does this with a high percentage of children for whom English is not the home language. Sustainable prosperity depends not only on ensuring we do not irreparably deplete the environment, but also on social cohesion, on a willing and free acceptance of the social contract. A really strong public education system is the foundational building block for equality of opportunity and the kind of belief in fairness among the majority of society’s members that leads to stable government, safe streets, and sustainable prosperity. The international PISA test shows that in the key areas of mathematics and literacy, Canadian public education is world class. The BBC recently did an editorial entitled: “How did Canada become an education powerhouse?” The key takeaway: there is in Canada a national consensus on the importance of public education.
Our free society allows for massive differences in outcomes, in wealth and in lifestyle, which would be unconscionable were it not for a reality-based belief in equality of opportunity and the level playing field. This is the reason that I was instrumental in the early years of the Halton Learning Foundation, which now provides a significant pool of resources to help public schools remove any financial barriers children may face through no fault of their own in the completion of their educations. For some children a lost textbook or an inability to buy shoes can be the last straw that has them failing to complete school. Often, just knowing that someone cared enough to help them when they need it is enough to buoy them up, and such children, having endured hardship, will sometimes outshine their luckier peers.
Here are my reasons for opposing tax deductions for school fees, which will inevitably result in a greater demand for private education:
The more aspirational parents who choose private education, the more such parents no longer attend PTA meetings in public schools, and the more their positive influence is lost.
The fewer people whose children are in public education, the more politicians can afford to give it less attention.
The more different private schools there are, the more fragmented our education becomes, by social class, by ethnicity, by faith group, and the less our education contributes to our sense of larger community and the social cohesion necessary for peace, order and prosperity.
In spite of tax deductions, means will still be the primary sorter of who can attend private schools.
Without the political will (Margaret Thatcher actually ignored public education because “our voters don’t send their children to state schools”), and engaged successful parents involved in the system, public schools will deteriorate. As in England and the United States, even parents who believe in public education but have the means will not let their children be martyrs to their principles and will put them in private schools.
This begins a vicious cycle from which it is difficult to recover. America, mainly because local taxes pay for local schools, has gone from having the best public education in the world to 48th, with a resulting loss of social cohesion which threatens their economy and their democracy.
Great public education is exceptional, not the norm. Once achieved, it remains fragile and the public and governments must be vigilant in supporting it and protecting it.
Anything that encourages people to abandon the public system puts that system at risk, and tax deductions (which are subsidies from other taxpayers) are essentially funding which encourages weakening the public system, driving its inevitable decline.
Our public system is far from perfect. Here are a few suggestions other than tax deductions, charter schools and other things that will erode it, that I think could be considered for its improvement:
The success of Montessori is demonstrable around the world, and as good as our elementary education is, I think it could benefit from incorporating some Montessori principles. In general, looking to independent schools as laboratories for innovation and continuous improvement of the public system should be encouraged.
Tax deductions for donations to private schools, except (and I am not even sure about this) those for bursaries for children who could otherwise not afford to attend them, should be eliminated. Canadian taxpayers should not be subsidising the building of a new ice rink at a school where the students are going skiing in Austria for spring break.
We do not really have an objective measure of the performance of our schools or students that makes it possible to properly assess the effectiveness of different approaches at imparting the core thinking skills and curriculum. Most countries do have some kind of school leaving exam marked by teachers who do not know the children or the schools they come from. This eliminates mark inflation and gives Universities a clear idea of a student’s capabilities. Ontario had a good version of this in its departmental exam system until the early 1970’s, which combined a student’s school performance with his external anonymously graded exam mark. Something like this should be considered. Canadian students are currently disadvantaged in applying to international Universities because of a difficulty in interpreting their marks, which is leading to the International Baccalaureat and Advanced Placement rather randomly appearing, mostly in private schools.
It is difficult to see how a single religion can continue to be justified in having a parallel public system, but this would not be the top priority to fix.
We are unique in that most of our country’s elites are produced by our public education system, that is accessible to all, and that for the most part we mix with all classes, faiths and ethnicities first in school, and then later, successfully compared to most other countries, in work and society. It is a great achievement. We take it for granted. It would not, I believe, take much to start the unravelling of this: you just have to pull hard enough on the right thread. Tax deductions for private school fees is one thread we should not risk tugging at.