I have a great deal of respect for Jack Mintz as a person and as an economist, which is why I hesitated a lot before responding to his plea for funding religious schools. Still, he deserves a response because he writes on a very important topic using arguments that I find incorrect on both financial and moral grounds.
Let’s start from the claim that Ontario can “afford” to fund religious schools. Jack knows very well that there is no such a term as “affordable” in economics. Economics is about choice, and everything is affordable, provided you decide to sacrifice something else. The Ontario Conservatives have promised to spend $400-million to fund religious schools and to cut more than $2-billion in taxes by abolishing the health surtax. Clearly, something will have to go on the programme side, something that their leader has been eloquently silent about. What is it going to be? Starving the universities, or letting health care deteriorate even further? Alternatively, the Conservatives may let the provincial deficit escalate (or delay the debt payback), a tactic favoured by most right-wing politicians, from Ronald Reagan to Mike Harris to George W. Bush. In fact Mike Harris did both, starve the universities and increase the provincial deficit. But that’s a mere aside in the religious schools debate.
Jack knows very well that funding religious schools is also an economic Pandora’s box, let alone a social one. The current number of 52,000 students currently studying in such schools tells us nothing about how many students will study there if the province decides to pay their tuition. In Ontario there are now only Jewish, Muslim and some Christian schools, all of them in the more extreme spectrum of their respective religious groups. There will almost certainly be many others — Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Buddhist, Sikh, etc., etc. — if the cost disincentives are removed. Some of the cost of their studies will be shifted from the public-school system, but the fragmented system will almost certainly be much more expensive to run than what we have now. As for the decentralization efficiencies that Jack mentions and that I agree with, they can be achieved much more easily within the public-school system, starting with the restoration of the local control that the Harris Conservatives abolished more than 10 years ago.
Which brings us to the fairness argument for funding religious schools. I am trying desperately to understand why it is fair to pay public funds to religious groups to teach mathematics, geography, literature or physics, subjects that have absolutely nothing to do with religion. The answer that
because the Catholics do it, so too must the others, is not good enough. If the justification doesn’t stand on its own, then one should be campaigning to abolish funding for the Catholics as well, not extend it everywhere.
I asked this question of a Jewish friend of mine, who works overtime to send his kids to religious schools all the way through university. He answered: “Because I don’t want to have to explain to my young kid why it is wrong for him to eat a bacon sandwich, as his classmate is doing next to him.” That’s an honest answer, but it is also an excellent argument against the public funding of religious schools. What it says is that these schools are not about religion, they are about socialization, or rather the avoidance of it. Those who send their kids there do it because they don’t want them to mix with the children of people of other backgrounds and religions in multicultural Canada.
There is ample evidence that this is, indeed, what several extremist religious leaders are preaching, certainly among Muslims but also, sadly, among Jews. Radical imams have been reported as urging their followers not to socialize with Christians or Jews. This is the kind of hate preaching that leads to terror attacks. Among the Jews there is a notorious group that is going around comparing intermarriage to the Holocaust, the former being a product of socialization. Quite apart from the fact that such a comparison trivializes the greatest crime of modern times, it is also hate preaching that confuses an act of love like marriage with the supreme actof hate that is the Holocaust.
There is no way that we can guarantee that such opinions will not make their way inside religious schools, even if they operate under public supervision. Besides, in a democratic society people are allowed to hold opinions that are abhorrent to the vast majority of their fellow Canadians. We even allow them to run schools where they can spread such opinions and live according to them. It is, however, suicidal for our multicultural society to pick up the tab.
…this post forwarded by Windsor Humanist, Jim McAl, after a September 15, 2007 article by Stylianos Perrakis in The Financial Post