Thursday, April 21, 2005

A provacative look at religious schools

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:36 AM |  

I’m not one that normally looks north of the border for solutions to public policy issues, but this article from the May issue of "Teacher Magazine" provides a provocative look at the role of Catholic schools in Canada, specifically the province of Ottawa where Catholic Schools are directly funded by the province with tax dollars just like secular public schools.

The article is interesting because it portrays the worst fears of both sides in the current school choice debate we’re having here in Minnesota yet at the end of the piece one comes away with the perception that the kids described are getting one damn good education. And if the focus of education is kids, not systems, then the Ottawa system is worth a look.

Since 1867, Ottawa has funded parochial education. In Canada, which has no formal separation of church and state, each province is free to configure its own education system including funding some, but not necessarily all denominational schools, the situation that existed in the United States until the latter 1800s. Half of Canada’s 10 provinces support only nonreligious public systems.

For the record, I personally disagree with direct funding of non-public schools as is done in Ottawa. Government determining which religions get aid and which do not is a potentially dangerous proposition that gives government too much social engineering power. The Ottawa system should not be confused with a voucher system, like the proposed Hann/Buesgens educational access grant legislation in the Minnesota legislature, in which families make the choice of where to spend voucher monies, free of any government coercion.

Nonetheless, the article makes clear that impressive results can be achieved when relgious schools and public schools view themselves as partners in a larger educational framework.

The article notes that in the United States, the Catholic schools most likely to have funding problems -- those in inner city areas -- are promoted as models for education reform because of their emphasis on academic basics in a disciplined environment. As a result, they’re considered cost-effective alternatives for many voucher students, both Catholic and non-Catholic.

Meanwhile, in public schools, the church-state issue continues to be a contentious issue that in many cases distracts from the system's (ought to be) objective of educating children.
Every Christmastime, for example, newspapers are filled with stories about public schools not allowing Christian-themed music to be performed on their stages—and about the lawsuits that ensue. It seems an unbridgeable divide, one that also exists in those Canadian public schools that are nonreligious. So it’s worth taking a look at the Ontario system (and Immaculata High, in particular), where funding is never a problem for Catholic schools and the curriculum promotes tolerance and civic values.
Immaculata High, mentioned in the quote, is about 20 percent non-Catholic. Providing ammunition for the “level playing field” defenders of Minnesota public education, Ontario’s Catholic schools don’t admit non-Catholic students until 9th grade. Currently, 32 percent of the province’s 2.1 million preK-12 students attend fully funded Catholic schools. But Ottawa is not focused on picking a “winner” from competing systems. The focus is on the kids and their education.
Ironically, this financial arrangement has eliminated interest in comparing outcomes between Catholic and secular public schools across Canada, according to Heather McLachlan, public affairs officer at the Alberta education ministry. After accounting for demographics, she says, it’s always been assumed that the two systems performed equally well. Instead, the emphasis is more on improving individual schools.
The thematic thread of the article (very well written) is a 12th grade philosophy class discussing the concept of gay marriage. (The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that same-sex marriage is constitutional and Gay marriages are being performed in six of Canada’s provinces, including Ontario.) The discussion as portrayed can only be described as wide open with all points of encouraged by the teacher with the central-casting name of Thomas Aquinas Conklin.

A philosophy curriculum was instituted in the Ottawa system in 1994 and is now taught to about 28,000 students at 290 public high schools, both secular and Catholic. The textbook covers the entire range of modern philosophies that challenge religious belief.
“Open-mindedness requires reviewing the evidence and continuing to question, but [that doesn’t mean] one doesn’t hold a view,” says John Peter Portelli, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. “Like the Catholic [schools], public schools aren’t neutral. The question is whether the ideological framework hinders open argument.”
What might come as a shock to Minnesota opponents of sending voucher money to religious schools is that Catholic school students in Ottawa can have a more open discussion on a controversial social topic like gay marriage because it is not hindered in bringing in a religious viewpoint. What might shock school choice proponents is that such free-wheeling discussion can take place within the framework of a standardized system.

Teaching philosophy at a Catholic school allows teachers a distinct advantage. After encouraging students to follow all possible logical twists in an issue and explore the full extent of secular thinking, they can pull back and add their own faith-based perspective, which isn't "appropriate" public schools.

Another surprise for school choice proponents is that unlike most of their American counterparts, Catholic school teachers in Canada are represented by a powerful union under the same umbrella as their public school peers, which protects teachers like Conklin that introduce non-Catholic concepts into the classroom; however, written into the contract is the requirement to support Catholic teachings and, with few exceptions, practice the faith.
“Teachers need to be sensitive regarding how to talk about issues in the classroom,” says Linus Shea, a chapter president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association. “A teacher can’t denounce church teachings, but discussion is encouraged as long as the Catholic position is brought forward in the debate.”
There’s plenty more in this article worth discussion. The point for Minnesotans is that religious schools and secular public schools both have their strong points. What Ottawa has managed to do is find a way to combine the best of each to create a system that to all appearances is providing great education.

I’m not suggesting that we adopt lock, stock, and barrel the Ottawa system, but it certainly makes sense to adopt the Ottawa attitude that private and public systems are not competing systems, but part of a larger public education system with the focus on children’s education and individual school improvement, not preservation and career advancement of a those with a vested interest in the existing system.