© 2000  Karen Selick
Separating School and State
An edited version of this article first appeared in the March, 2000 issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


Separating School and State

Three times in the past decade, Canadian courts have ruled that Ontario is not obliged to provide the same public funding to all religious schools that it provides to public schools and Roman Catholic schools.

Not satisfied with these decisions, Torontonian Arieh Waldman complained to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.  He had educated his children at a Jewish school and spent $95,000 on their tuition.  The province spent nothing on them. 

In November, 1999, the U.N. declared that Mr. Waldman, and other Ontario parents who sent their children to non-Catholic religious schools, were being discriminated against.  Of course, the U.N. has no power to make Ontario change its policy, but the ruling has focused public debate on the issue. 

I don’t blame Mr. Waldman for feeling disgruntled. It’s unfair that his taxes were used to educate everyone else’s kids, while others paid nothing to educate his kids.

However, the solution that the U.N. would like to impose upon Ontario—full government funding for religious schools of all denominations—would be no better.  It would still be unfair to the growing number of parents who homeschool their children, to atheists who will never (by definition) qualify for funding for "religious" schools teaching their preferred philosophy, to members of religious sects too small to warrant their own school or too unconventional to be recognized as a religion, and to taxpayers who have no children. 

All of these groups would still be left in the same unjust position that Mr. Waldman was in, paying taxes for something that benefits another segment of society while not deriving any benefit themselves. 

The solution beloved by conservatives lately is school vouchers, which would let parents spend some of the tax dollars earmarked for education in schools of their own choice.  This might be an improvement for individuals like Mr. Waldman, but it is not a complete answer to the problem.  It still provides no relief to those who make no use of schools at all.  Besides, even religious school patrons would soon learn first-hand that, "He who pays the piper calls the tune."   The receipt of public funds would seriously compromise the independence of values that many private school patrons prize so highly. 

The real solution is to adopt a policy of complete separation between school and state, just as we have the separation of church and state.  We don’t subsidize churches out of tax revenues and we need not subsidize schools either. 

Those who recoil in horror from this suggestion accept the flawed premise that education is a special type of product that must be provided by government.  Otherwise, they claim, people couldn’t afford to educate their children.  Besides, they argue, we all benefit from having an educated populace, so we should all pay for it. 

Education is today overwhelmingly provided by non-market sources, which makes it difficult to estimate what its cost would be if cut free from the state.  However, there is good reason to suspect that private education would be affordable for most families, especially if they were given corresponding tax cuts. 

The astonishing fact is that taxes are the biggest item in the average Canadian family’s budget, by a huge margin.  In 1998, taxes consumed 31.9 percent of the average family budget, while all the basic necessities of life—food, shelter and clothing combined—consumed only 23.5 percent. 

In 1961, the situation had been the reverse:  22.1 percent went to taxes, while 35.2 percent went to food, shelter and clothing. 

The trend is clear: goods and services produced by the marketplace tend to become increasingly more affordable over time (and, incidentally, better in quality), while those supplied by government tend to become increasingly more expensive (and, incidentally, worse in quality).

Might there nevertheless be some who could not afford to school their kids, even after tax cuts?  This question puts the cart before the horse.  Perhaps those who knew the cost of educating their children would fall on themselves and couldn’t be shifted to others would choose to have only as many children as they could comfortably afford to educate—a "non-consummation" devoutly to be wished. 

But what about the "we all benefit" argument?  Well, there’s a grain of truth to it, but not much more.  A huge proportion of the benefit of any individual’s education goes to that individual.  Only a tiny proportion goes to his neighbours.  There’s no need for the neighbours to pay cash for that benefit, because they’ve already paid for it in kind, by becoming educated themselves and bestowing the blessing of their educated behaviour on those around them. 

We all benefit from our neighbours using soap and deodorant but we don’t provide free government-produced toiletries to everyone.  If we did, we’d have expensive, ineffectual toiletries—just as we now have expensive, ineffectual public schools. 

Of course, they’re only ineffectual if you believe that educating children is their real goal.  In his book Separating School and State, author Sheldon Richman argues that their real goal, historically, was to create a society of obedient, uncritical, state-loving collectivists.  In this they’ve been a rip-roaring success.  An interesting thesis, and a recommended read. 

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June 22, 2000