Cover Story

Cash and creed

Ontario offers a tax break for parents who don't choose tax-funded Catholic and public schools

Issue: "Balancing act," Sept. 8, 2001

A Canadian flag waves lazily in the breeze outside Brantford Christian School (BCS), a single-story L-shaped building nestled at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac in Brantford, Ontario. Last year the school had 164 students; this fall, school officials at BCS and the other 733 private schools across the province hope that their halls will be a little more crowded because of the Ontario Equity in Education Act, which became law on June 29. The act provides tax credits for parents who send their children to private schools. A few provinces encourage parental school choice in various ways (Alberta, for example, funds charter schools and provides money for homeschool parents to buy curriculum), but Ontario is the first to offer a tuition-based tax break. The province is presenting the tax credit, to be phased in over five years with a maximum benefit in 2006 of $3,500 Canadian (about $2,300 in U.S. currency), as redress for "discriminatory" funding practices. Ontario and other provinces have historically funded both secular public and Catholic "separate" school systems, but parents who wanted to send their children to Protestant or other independent schools had to choose between cash and creed. For years independent school associations have lobbied the provinces for relief for parents paying for their children's education twice-through taxes and tuition. This legislation, said BCS principal Chris Vander Veen, "came faster than I thought it would." Ontario's education establishment, long at war with Premier Mike Harris's Progressive Conservative government, is outraged, calling the Act a "poorly disguised voucher system." "The tax credit will siphon money away from the already cash-starved publicly funded education system and create a system based on privilege and profit," insisted Jim Smith, President of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association. He implied that the credit is just a money-saving scheme, pointing out that the $3,500 tax credit to parents is far less than the roughly $5,600 per student the province won't have to send to school boards. But the province sees no need to apologize. Said finance ministry Parliamentary Assistant Ernie Hardeman: "It's an issue of parental choice and it's an issue of fairness."

-James Brink is a World Journalism Institute student

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