Patti Bacchus: We should privatize private schools

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      A national CBC story about a teacher who was forced out of her job at the Surrey Christian School—for the sin of living with her male partner—is reigniting the debate over public funding going to private schools, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

      In the segment that aired on The National Sunday night, CBC’s Erica Johnson told the story of Stephanie Vande Kraats, who was told she couldn't continue teaching at the Surrey Christian School because she was living with her partner, which is considered a violation of the school’s employment contract that requires employees to refrain from sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage.

      Vande Kraats spoke to CBC on-camera about how humiliating it was to have male administrators ask her questions about her private life, including whom she lived with, whether she was sexually active, and if she was pregnant.

      (I don’t know why people who believe in immaculate conception would ask the latter question, but whatever.)

      This all sounds like something that would happen in another place or time than Surrey, B.C. in the 21st century, but it isn’t.

      It wasn’t an isolated incident, either. In 2010, teacher Lisa Reimer reported that she was forced to leave her job at Vancouver’s Catholic Little Flower Academy when the school’s parents and administrators learned that she and her same-sex partner were expecting a baby.

      In the mid-1990s, Vancouver College, a Vancouver Catholic school for boys, fired its star football coach, Paul Dal Monte, for marrying a divorced woman with whom he already had a young child. According to a March 1995 front-page Vancouver Sun story by religion reporter Douglas Todd, the school tolerated Dal Monte having a child out of wedlock as long as he didn’t live with the child’s mother. It was only when he married his son’s mother that he crossed the school’s line and had to go.

      Good lord, it’s pretty rich for a church that’s tolerated priests sexually abusing children to fire a man for marrying the mother of his child.

      So, what can we do about all this?

      The problem

      I was asked to provide on-camera comment for Johnson’s CBC story. I focused my brief airtime on the problem of faith-based private schools in B.C. getting public funding when they are also getting a religious exemption from human-rights legislation that protects employees from discrimination based on marital status, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

      I’m opposed to the public’s money going to private schools of all types, and this appalling case adds insult to injury. To think that our tax dollars are going to support a school that effectively fires employees who have sex outside of heterosexual marriage makes my blood boil.

      Go ahead and enjoy your religious freedoms and the backward beliefs that may go along with them, but keep my tax dollars out of it.

      Public funding goes to private, religious schools in B.C.

      Most faith-based B.C. private schools fall into the Ministry of Education’s Group 1 funding category, which includes schools that spend the same or less per student as public schools get in per-student funding grants from the province. Group 1 schools get half as much in per-student operating grants that public schools do. Expensive, exclusive private schools generally fall in the Group 2 category and get 35 percent of the per-student funding grants that public schools get—and they can discriminate against which students they accept. For more on this, click here.

      Each year, millions of our hard-earned tax dollars go to support schools that don’t have to comply with B.C. and Canadian human-rights laws and that teach goodness-knows-what kind of beliefs and world-views to impressionable children.

      If religious schools that discriminate against their employees are operating within the law, then the law seems like a problem in need of a fix, if you ask me.

      The solution

      I’m not a lawyer, so I won’t recommend how, specifically, the religious exemption rules need changing. I’m a citizen, taxpayer, former school trustee, and an education columnist, however, and what I recommend, at the very least, is to deny funding to any school that doesn’t abide by human-rights laws. If there’s a legal barrier to doing that because of constitutional rights around freedom of religion, then announce a phase out of all funding for private schools.

      To borrow a phrase from David Chudnovsky—a former MLA and BCTF president—privatize private schools by taking away their public subsidies. That might not stop them from discriminating, but at least we won’t be paying for it.

      I emailed Education Minister Rob Fleming’s communications staff on Monday morning to ask why government continues to fund private schools and if there are plans to review the issue. I didn’t get a response so I emailed again on Tuesday morning. A staff person said he’d check on it and get back to me.

      When he did, it was a reply that didn’t address my questions but, rather, gave me an awkward message about it being a legal matter and saying “government is bringing back the Human Rights Commission that the old government scrapped. These are the kind of questions that the Commission could look further at.

      “After years of the old government’s neglect, our focus is on investing in our public education system.

      "We have the biggest public education budget ever in B.C.—almost $1 billion more than under the old government.  We’ve already hired almost 4,000 new teachers, and announced nearly $1 billion in new schools, expansions and upgrades.”

      Good grief, it sounds like Fleming kept the same communications staff the B.C. Liberals used.  

      I’m nothing if not persistent, so I followed up with a third request to have the minister actually answer my questions, and his spokesperson, Sean Leslie, replied tersely that “you have our response”.

      So there you go, readers, the minister responsible for a ministry that delivers hundreds of millions of dollars to private schools each year, including to those that don’t abide by the B.C. Human Rights Code, refuses to say why he’s continuing to do that or whether he’s rethinking it. I find that deeply disappointing, and not what I expected in a “Better B.C.”

      Private school funding is a thorny issue for governments

      Cutting funding to private schools will upset a lot of parents who belong to groups that are relatively easy to mobilize, like large religious communities. Ever been to one of those megachurches out in the Valley? Have you seen the size of the Khalsa School in Surrey and thought about the seats the NDP needs to hold on to power?

      Public opinion appears to be solidly in my camp, however, at least according to an Insights West poll conducted for the B.C. Humanist Association in 2016 that showed 70 percent of British Columbians oppose public funding going to faith-based private schools. A poll conducted for CUPE B.C. in 2016 found that 77 percent of British Columbians surveyed opposed public funding going to private schools.

      This week and last—as we watched events relating to the Jody Wilson-Raybould affair unfold—had people thinking about the difference between doing the ethical and right thing in politics versus doing the politically strategic thing. As former Treasury Board president, Indigenous Services Minister, and Health Minister Jane Philpott said in her resignation letter this week: “There can be a cost to acting on one's principles, but there is a bigger cost to abandoning them."

      Those are words the education minister and the provincial cabinet should keep in mind as they continue to avoid the debate about phasing out funding for B.C.’s private schools.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.