Public Interest in Religious Education
Public Interest in Religious Education

Public Interest in Religious Education

A reliable way to increase generosity, family cohesion, and respect for authority? These data should make legislators sit up and take note.

Having been at the business of education for several decades now, in classrooms and legislatures on both shores of the Pacific, I rather expect I've heard all the complaints before: Private religious education is divisive. It produces radicals. It blurs church and state. It promotes two-tier education. It's not in the public interest.

Anecdotally, this has not been my experience. And now, objectively speaking, there are data quite to the contrary.

I read the Cardus Education Survey (CES) results with great interest, particularly in the meaningful insights it can yield for those working with educational legislation.

In a nutshell, as Comment readers may know, the survey revealed that private religious (especially Protestant) schools produce graduates with higher propensities toward the following:

  • generosity
  • volunteering to help the poor and needy
  • commitment to family and community
  • respect for authority
  • favourable relationships with teachers

In short, graduates from private religious (especially Protestant) schools outscored their public school counterparts in every measured trait that we would desire in a stable, contributing citizen in our society, even when factors were controlled for multiple variables of family background. These graduates also scored lower in all undesirable measures, such as divorce rates and feelings of helplessness in dealing with life's problems.

It appears to me that those working with educational legislation and fiscal frameworks for funding education need to sit up and take note. CES results indicate that society would be strengthened by increasing the numbers of the type of citizens that religious private schools are graduating.

The partial funding model

The nature of education legislation and government funding models does influence the types of choices available to parents for their children and teens.

British Columbia (BC), for example, commenced inspection and certification of independent (private) schools in 1977 and granted up to 30% operational funding for qualifying schools. This controversial decision was reviewed by BC's Royal Commission on Education in 1988. Based on the commission's positive report, maximum funding for independent schools was raised to 50%. The Commission reviewed extensive submissions and provided numerous hearings from organizations and individuals regarding the pros and cons of certification and partial funding of independent (private) schools. The Royal Commission concluded,

We therefore deem it proper that non-public schools should continue to receive provincial financial assistance, such aid we believe to be a normal tangible manifestation of the freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. To assume otherwise would be to deny accommodation of social diversity and multiculturalism, the recognition of individual differences and the rights of parents to participate in educational choice—all principles which remain fundamental parts of the democratic system we hold dear (A Legacy for Learners: The Report of the Royal Commission on Education 1988, BC Ministry of Education).

And today, BC's position on school choice continues to hold. The province's Ministry of Education website notes,

Government strongly supports a public system of education that provides a publicly funded quality education for all. However, parents have a right to choose from various educational alternatives for the education of their children, such as distributed learning, homeschooling and independent schools.

The Ministry continues,

Partial funding of independent schools recognizes the contributions these schools have made to the education of children in our province. It also impacts tuition fees set by authorities, thereby increasing options for more parents to select schools of their choice. These choices often reflect the goals, educational pedagogy, culture/religion and values that parents desire for their child(ren).

(Interestingly, the Commission noted this framework complies with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [Article 26] and the First Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, both co-signed by Canada.)

So, the implementation and increase of tax-based funding for independent schools that meet established educational standards increases the possibility of choice in education to better match the diversity in our pluralistic society. Further, as increased levels of tax-based funding issued lowers necessary tuition rates, more families can afford to make this choice. (In British Columbia, for example, the independent school population has risen from less than 4% in 1976 to 12% of the total provincial K-12 student population today.)

Looping back to the CES results, then, we might expect that each increase in tax-based funding to independent schools would produce an increase in the number of graduates demonstrating higher propensities toward the positive traits mentioned above, and lower propensities toward the negative. In addition, from BC we learn that governments would achieve these desired results with a significant reduction in tax-based dollars required to educate each student whose parents would now choose an independent school option due to their lowered tuition rates.

More good for fewer tax dollars sounds good, but . . .

Some will object to any levels of tax-based funding being issued to qualifying private schools, because this would promote a two-tier system of education. But because independent schools' parents pay the same in taxes toward education as everyone else does, the truth is actually the opposite: we already have a two-tier funding system. Rather, by increasing the level of tax-based funding provided to independent schools to closer match the level provided to public schools, lawmakers can reduce the current inequalities that impact which families can choose or not choose independent school options.

Some, particularly in the United States, will object that tax-based funding for private schools contravenes the concept of "separation of church and state" upon which the country was founded. This would reflect a serious misunderstanding. The founding fathers meant by "separation of church and state" that the state would not be permitted to declare a particular church denomination to be the church of the land, so that those belonging to that denomination would receive privileges and that those who did not would have privileges removed or be persecuted, as they had experienced in their European backgrounds. This did not mean that anything religious was to be kept out of the public sphere or not supported by the state. In fact, as others with Cardus have researched and argued—Robert Joustra in Books & Culture and Ray Pennings on the Cardus blog, for instance—religion is a very potent public good. Likewise, CES suggests, with religious schooling.

Yet it remains a pervasive notion that religion is bad for society, and that religious-school graduates by extension do not fit in well or do not contribute positively to society.

An interesting illustration of this type of false thinking occurred when the BC College of Teachers (BCCT) refused to accredit Trinity Western University (TWU)'s teacher education program. This case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2001. While TWU had passed all of its on-site inspections for meeting the BCCT standards, the BCCT Board objected to TWU's standard of student conduct which stated that students "refrain from practices that are contrary to biblical teaching including premarital sex, adultery, and homosexual behaviour." The BCCT had argued that because students at TWU believed that homosexual behaviour was wrong, they could not be trusted and therefore not be certified to teach in a public school because students might come from such a home or be living this lifestyle. But the Supreme Court drew a line between belief and conduct. As the BCCT did not produce evidence that TWU students were taught to engage in discriminating behaviours against same sex couples or that TWU graduates when employed as teachers actually discriminated against students, the Court found that the BCCT had acted beyond its mandate. The majority stated,

Absent concrete evidence that training teachers at TWU fosters discrimination in the public schools of BC, the freedom of individuals to adhere to certain religious beliefs at TWU should be respected. The proper place to draw the line is generally between beliefs and conduct. The freedom to hold beliefs is broader than the freedom to act on them.

During this court case TWU submitted an interesting example from a survey in the USA. During the time of the original AIDS scare, when HIV was first detected and uncontrolled, a serious problem developed: a number of health care providers refused to work with HIV+ patients. A survey was conducted to attempt to identify distinctive traits in nurses who were willing to work with these patients when compared with those who were not willing. One interesting indicator was that the stronger the religious commitment of the nurse, the more willing the nurse was to work with HIV+ patients. This factual indicator was the very opposite of the pre-supposed argument raised by the BCCT. It is interesting that the CES results appear to indicate the same, that the more committed the graduate is to his/her faith, the more service-oriented the person tends to be.

Will the money change us?

Independent school families and supporters commonly express fear that an independent school will lose its autonomy or, worse and by extension, its spiritual vitality if it begins to receive partial funding from government.

Years before he would contribute to the 2011 CES report as a key qualitative researcher, Dr. Harro Van Brummelen interviewed principals of BC Christian schools approximately 15 years after provincial government inspection, certification, and partial funding for independent schools was implemented. He sought, on behalf of the Society of Christian Schools in BC, to determine if government involvement had lessened the Christian perspective and ethos of the schools receiving provincial funding.

Surprisingly, a number of principals in strongly-committed Christian schools stated that both the Christian perspective and ethos in their schools had increased since receiving government funding. The reason? Prior to government funding, budgets were so tight that Christian school principals had to spend almost all of their time teaching classes themselves, working on fund-raising activities, and caring for immediate/urgent administrative issues, and had little or no time to develop Christian curriculum, observe Christian classroom atmosphere, mentor teachers in teaching from a Christian perspective, or work with boards on developing Christian goals. But with government funding, a number of Christian principals felt that they now had more time to put into developing the Christian aspects of their respective schools.

Money well spent

These are striking results that merit consideration by those dealing with educational legislation and funding frameworks. Governments should be in the business of promoting in their citizenry generosity, commitment to families and communities, compassion for the poor and needy, and respectful involvement in civil institutions. In that light, serious thought should be given again to implementing or expanding tax-based funding to independent schools. This would expand the number of parents who could afford the choice of independent schooling for their children and at the same time reduce the per student operational and capital expenditure pressures on the tax-based dollars available.

James Beeke
James Beeke

James W. Beeke is president of Signum International Educational Services, Inc. He previously served as the Inspector of Independent Schools in the Ministry of Education, British Columbia, Canada. Beeke has also served four years in the People's Republic of China as Superintendent of Maple Leaf Schools, and he spent decades as a teacher and principal at both high school and independent levels. He has written seven textbooks and many curricula reports.


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