Education and Inequality

Private education is a public good.
September 10th, 2015

Why Many Love to Hate Religious Private Schools

Public policy discussions in North America are frozen in stasis. One side argues that the state should control the delivery of public services, while the other argues that the delivery of those same public services should simply be left to markets. The result is that our debates have the character of a peach tree in January: dormant and without signs of life. Or, to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis: it’s always winter but never Christmas.

What we need to restore a fruitful—and varied—public life is a warmer climate to thaw the frozen categories that have marked our debates for decades.

This is especially true in the world of education.

In our society, which detests inequality in all its forms, it makes sense to try and prohibit or limit religious private education by refusing to publicly support it, or even subsidize it. And in the name of social justice, equality, or perhaps plain fairness, many champion a public education system that is universally accessible, publicly funded, and managed and upheld by the state. This is a sure way to both improve education, and if not that, at least remedy the inequalities that privatization perpetuates. Or so the story goes.

But what if, as a host of Comment writers argued this summer, not all inequalities are unjust inequalities? And more to the point: what if the tendency to see public and private education as at odds with each other not only weakens education but also exacerbates inequality? These are not hypothetical questions. One can simply look at the current state of education in the province of Ontario and trace it back several decades to see how this view of the relationship between private education and state education is playing out.

The most common argument levelled against religious private education is that it’s the cloistered breeding ground of privileged elites and, because of this, it’s unconcerned with the common good—that is, the good of the so-called 99 percent. Inequalities do exist in some cases. Many—not all mind you—religious private schools have highly demanding curricula, great records of getting students into top-tier schools, and a whole range of extracurricular activities on offer. And the more wealthy the community, the better the school and the chances for children born into those “lotteries” to succeed. In these cases, the inequalities are obvious and glaring. And sometimes it’s difficult to see just how these cloistered breeding grounds of the privileged really do anything for the common, public good. Nevertheless, this argument is flawed.

Ontario’s Missed Opportunity

Education in Ontario demonstrates why. The belief that public education is at odds with private, especially religious private education, is widely assumed in Ontario. Yet public-private partnerships within the education system have become policy norms across Canada, in the US, and in the West more generally, reflecting much greater diversity in educational models. The province of Alberta, for example, funds up to 70 percent of tuition fees for accredited nongovernment schools. What happened? Why is Ontario an outlier when it comes to its education system?

To understand this discrepancy between Ontario and the rest of the Canadian education system you need to look back to 1985 and see the opportunities that Ontario, and its religious nongovernment schools, missed. The last time there was a serious policy review of Ontario’s nongovernment schools was thirty years ago. Commissioner Bernard Shapiro, director of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and a former provost of the University of Western Ontario, was charged by then premier Bill Davis—famous for his noncontroversial, nonideological, “boring is good” approach to policy—to chronicle and make recommendations “on the role of private schools” in the province. The Shapiro Commission recommendations chiefly centered on renegotiated agreements to shared public board services and access to provincial funding, as was then the case in Saskatchewan.

The real significance of the report that emerged from this commission (the “Shapiro Report”) lies in its methodology. Embedded in the commission’s enquiry was a much larger vision for public education in the province than we have today. Davis and Shapiro envisaged an education system in which all Ontarians, whether they primarily identified as religious or nonreligious, and whether they supported government or nongovernment schools, had a stake in the public good. The dividing lines between public and private were not as rigidly drawn as they appear today. So what Ontario lost when the Shapiro recommendations were ignored—and they were ignored—was actually an opportunity to widen access to public education through public-private partnership and to hold both government and nongovernment schools accountable for education as a public good. There have been two subsequent attempts at creating diversity in the public system in Ontario, and both failed: a tax credit under Harris-Eves and John Tory’s electoral platform, which promised to extend public funding to faith-based schools. Derek Allison writes that despite Ontario’s neglect of nongovernment schools, they continue to expand. They have achieved this against a backdrop of increasingly hostile relationships with Ontario’s education ministry embodied in things like multiple registration fees and ongoing clumsy communication and bureaucracy for nongovernment schools. Allison also points out that this neglect “has allowed fraud and administrative malfeasance to grow,” tainting “the reputations of many privately financed schools” as well as the “work and reputation of the public service.” Neglect and hostility, it turns out, are just as responsible for the segregation of communities and inequality of access to good schools as the existence of nongovernment schools. Whatever the case, the thirty years since that report have made Ontario a rather chilly place for educational diversity and a hard, cold ground for new and various models to try to grow and thrive.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Putting Learners Front and Center

When we debate educational reform, particularly the question of greater diversity in public education, the fault lines typically run along the ideological lines I mentioned above. For the libertarian, choice is king and competition raises quality for all; for the statist, equity is most important and all must have equal access to the same goods. Tellingly, both of these positions place the frigid system at the center, embodied in either the market or the state, not the learner or their family and their community. Parents often say that all they want is a good local school. This is probably true, but then they also need to be included in the conversation about what a good local school looks like and by extension what education is for.

A monopolistic system, whether market-centered or state-centered, imposes answers to these questions on learners, parents, their families, and their communities. It values conformity, it reproduces social inequalities, it restricts social mobility, and it plasters all of these with a veneer of meritocracy. These are all criticisms typically thrown at nongovernment schools because we persist in subscribing to the myth that the public education system is neutral and equitable. But the neo-Marxist French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu demonstrated very effectively that systems of education are never neutral and it’s actually the state monopolistic system itself that is at the heart of this social sorting.

Those with higher social capital enjoy privileged access; we are naïve if we don’t think this is a factor in government-funded schools too. It is time to call schools out, government and nongovernment, on their vision of a good education. By assuming that education was a public good but not necessarily assuming it had to be delivered by the state, the Shapiro Commission offered a genuine place to have a conversation about education policy. It did not fall into the trap of assuming that talk about the “public” is synonymous with talk about the “state”; this allows proper dialogue about the impact of nongovernment schools on our public life together. Recovering a more fulsome understanding of the public good has tremendous potential for education policy, as well as other areas of public policy.

What do we mean when we talk about education as a public good? The current delivery model of the state monopoly encourages parents with greater resources to manipulate the system. Desperate parents avoid certain public schools while attempting to buy a better peer group for their children. This is too limited a definition of education as a public good. When we raise adults, the goal, says Julie Lythcott-Haims (former dean at Stanford), is to help young people become independent and enable them to flourish. Flourishing and independence are what most parents want for their children; genuinely widening access to these goods is a wonderful way to think about the goal of education as a public good. The Shapiro Commission noted that nongovernment schools often “assume a clearly defined philosophy of life” that accords with the values of parents and students. The Cardus Education Survey has shown that religious schools can articulate a very different vision of what education is for, and this has a significant—and measurable—positive effect on their adult formation. Although it is not currently fashionable in education research to say this, schools do have an effect on the way the next generation performs academically, participates in civic and political life, and develops spiritually. The Cardus Education Survey found that graduates of religious schools in Canada were more generous, more focused on their neighbours, and established stronger families than graduates of government schools. Professor Robin Alexander of Cambridge University points out that questions about what education is for and what kinds of people are formed by our schools and our systems of education are deeply moral ones. He is fed up with educational systems in which the state imposes curriculum, testing, funding, and inspection without any attempt to engage in these central moral questions. This is why learners, parents, and families need to be at the heart of the conversation—a moral vision should not be imposed solely by the state, nor should the state get to determine who can have a seat at the table to discuss it.

Toward a Warmer Climate

The Cardus initiative “Toward a Warmer Climate” celebrates the contribution nongovernment religious schools make to public education across Canada. Furthermore, the Cardus Education Survey found that private schools are as attentive to the public good as public schools. The research found that nongovernment schools in Canada produce graduates “who embody commonly desired excellences and characteristics” in higher proportions than those attending government schools (Cardus, 2011). A robust independent school sector is a key component in holding public education accountable, raising standards, and encouraging policy makers to put learners and their families back at the heart of the system. When parents have greater freedom to choose schools for their children based on their values and their child’s learning needs, they are more likely to vote with their feet and to demand better quality of teaching and learning from their choice of school. This restores parental agency in the conversation about what education is for and the kind of person that emerges after nine years of school. Having two parallel systems, one run by the state and one private, risks the reinvention of the wheel every time teachers are trained, every time a new curriculum is developed, every time leaders and trustees are recruited. It also encourages schools to work in isolation from each other, creating the kind of educational silos from which it is difficult to rescue the bigger vision of education as a public good.

Toward a Warmer Climate revives not only an important policy question but also the art of how to have an informed conversation about school-sector diversity. Genuine conversation requires there to be genuine diversity of views, it requires people to listen, and it requires that we make an effort to understand the context from which those views are articulated, whether ideological, historical, or religious. These forms of reasoned debate, presentation, critical reflection, and interpretation are also the hallmarks of rigorous research. Toward a Warmer Climate also deliberately addresses the foundations on which this form of policy conversation is built. Robust and rigorous research into education diversity is itself an offering to the public good. The assumptions that govern entrenched positions regarding how we deliver education also shape the research questions we ask. At present in public-university education faculties and in government-funded policy research there is little interest in challenging the received wisdom that only prior socioeconomic factors influence educational outcomes. If schools make no difference then we don’t need to hold them accountable for the ways they shape the next generation. At Cardus we dared to ask what kind of people come out of religious schools, how they were formed, and whether this was good for North America. We can’t have an informed conversation about school-sector diversity and the goods it might promote until government and nongovernment sectors are willing to engage with these questions. It is time to talk seriously about how greater school diversity improves public education for all.


Beth Green is Program Director of Cardus Education. She previously directed the National Centre for Christian Education at Liverpool Hope University in the United Kingdom where she also ran the Professional Doctorate in Education (EdD). Dr Green has a DPhil from the University of Oxford which was funded by a prestigious Economic and Research Council Scholarship; she is also a graduate of Cambridge and London Universities and took the Hans Prize in Education for her MA thesis in Education Management. Dr. Green has an international reputation for her expertise in religious school ethos; leadership and management; teaching and learning and social theory in education. She regularly publishes her empirical research in international journals including the British Journal of Sociology and Education and the Cambridge Journal of Education. Her consultancy regularly takes her to Europe and Australia where she advises on effective approaches to measurement, professional development, and pedagogy in the religious school sector. Dr. Green is a former high school history teacher who has worked in both government and non-government schools in the UK.

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