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David Hunt: Religious independent schools are a win-win for students and society

Commentary

American news keeps dominating—excuse me, “making”—headlines in Canada. I guess this is nothing new, but given the sheer volume of watershed Supreme Court decisions in recent weeks, an all-too-critical issue risks getting lost in the wave of coverage.

The school funding debate has received new life this summer with both the Arizona Legislature passing the most expansive school choice law in American history and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that taxpayer funds for independent schools cannot discriminate based on religion.

Cue the outrage. One side claims the “wall” of separation of church and state has fallen and is stoking fears of a “predatory market” emerging in education.GOP plan to expand school vouchers to all 1.1 million Arizona students clears House https://www.azmirror.com/2022/06/22/gop-plan-to-expand-school-vouchers-to-all-1-1-million-arizona-students-clears-house/ The other is calling these “anti-wokeness” measures. But despite predictable rhetoric from radicals in both Democrat and Republican camps, important nuance has been missed in the news coverage that bears important lessons for Canada.

Let’s start with Carson v. Makin,Carson, as Parent and Next Friend of O. C., Et Al. V. Makin https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/21pdf/20-1088_dbfi.pdf which began as a challenge in Maine and warrants a bit of explanation. 

Some of Maine’s rural-area school districts don’t have high schools. As the Maine constitution calls for “free” (taxpayer-funded) public education for all school-age children, districts without high schools provide tuition assistance for students at another public or independent school their parents select. There’s just one catch: the school cannot provide religious instruction.

On June 21, the Court ruled (6-3) that this is discrimination against religion. A state cannot disqualify an independent school from receiving taxpayer funds solely because it is religious, as to do so is to penalize the free exercise of religion.

Importantly, the decision requires the State to remain neutral. Since parents direct the funds, they’re the ones taking positions on religious matters, not the State. 

Predictably, a tired boogeyman was conjured up. “This Court continues to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state,” wrote Justice Sotomayor in her dissent. 

But consider the other two dissenters. Justices Breyer and Kagan wrote that the U.S. is “a Nation with well over 100 different religious groups, from Free Will Baptist to African Methodist, Buddhist to Humanist…[with] a vast array of beliefs, ideals, and philosophies.” That leads to an important question: how can such a vast plurality of religions be combined, with any credibility, into “the church” that must be separate from the state? A boogeyman divided against itself cannot stand. Arguing that it’s a violation of the separation of church and state to spend a school voucher on a religious school makes about as much sense as arguing that spending part of a social assistance cheque on a religious charity is also “dismantling” that great wall!

Let’s not forget that Justices Breyer and Kagan raised the issue of religious pluralism in the context that “state neutrality with respect to religion is particularly important” because their particular concern was religious strife. In Arizona, amid the red-hot hyperbole, folks are really asking about social strife and separation. 

Evidence from sound research can help us turn down the temperature of the debate. They can also help us answer related questions Canadians are sometimes afraid to ask. How do we educate for the common good? How can our education systems meet the concerns of cohesion while honouring our differences?

The answer is more educational pluralism, not less. There’s a lot of research on this. The bottom-line: Independent schools—including religious ones—strengthen social cohesion.

A recent survey of the academic literature finds that, after controlling for family background, the evidence overwhelmingly dispels fears of independent schools’ negative effect on civic life.Good Schools, Good Citizens: Do Independent Schools Contribute to Civic Formation? https://www.cardus.ca/research/education/reports/good-schools-good-citizens/ In fact, independent-school attendance actually enhances political knowledge and tolerance, civic engagement, and civic skills. Of the 34 credible studies on independent and state schools’ effects on civic outcomes, there are 86 separate statistically significant findings. Of those, 50 findings reveal a clear independent-school advantage, 33 find neutral effects, and only three show a state-school advantage.

In other words, independent schools—most of which are religious—are considerably more likely to enhance the civic capabilities of young people and lead, eventually, to a more civically integrated and politically engaged public.

Although such myth-busting may be unpopular with ideologues, any parent of two or more kids sees just how different each child is. No two students are the same. Not everyone learns the same way. Not everyone fits in everywhere. As in nature, different plants require different soil, nutrients, temperature, water, and sunlight. It’s similar with children. Kids are not raw inputs for the assembly line, but unique gardens to be nourished.

And the research bears this out. When a student’s religious beliefs match those of her school, her grades rise—considerably. A recent Cardus study finds that matched students significantly outperform their unmatched peers in reading and math.A Good Fit: How Matching Students and Schools by Religion Improves Academic Outcomes https://www.cardus.ca/research/education/reports/a-good-fit/ This is after controlling for all other factors. In other words, the “good fit”, in and of itself, significantly increases a student’s ability to learn and retain knowledge—even in a subject like mathematics.

By the way, most of the world already understands this. In fact, the norm is for governments to publicly fund independent schools, including religious ones, to varying degrees. Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Singapore, and every province west of Ontario are all examples.

Given that religious independent schools contribute to the common good, serve the public interest by strengthening civility and social cohesion, and also greatly improve the reading and math abilities of religious students, why wouldn’t we all be supportive? It is a win-win to let parents use the education dollars allocated for their children in the school where they can best thrive.

Blair Gibbs: The U.K. Conservative Party’s survival instinct is about to be revealed

Commentary

As Tory members in Canada cruise towards the inevitable coronation of their next leader—someone they can have confidence in becoming a future prime minister—across the pond, British Tories are engaged in a more dynamic and interesting contest. 

The sudden defenestration of Boris Johnson earlier this monthBoris Johnson resignation: Your questions answered https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-62092075—despite winning a historic majority three years ago, surviving a formal confidence vote in the spring, and continuing to outpoll the Labour leader on who would make the best PM—still feels messy and badly timed. It no doubt looks odd from the perspective of Canadian Conservatives who have been out of power nationally for seven years. 

One of the totems that political science undergraduates learn is that the British Conservative Party has survived for so long because it is highly adaptable and when needed, proven to be unusually ruthless in sacrificing its leaders to ensure its own electoral survival. In one sense, the parliamentary system is geared this way, and the Conservatives—unencumbered by other producer interests in their policy-setting process or leadership races—can act more quickly to change course, purge the dissenting opinion (like today’s Remain-voting MPs after 2016) and switch out the leadership. With Union power enshrined, the Labour Party is never going to work like this. 

But there is something more fundamental happening in this leadership race. It is the first since 2005 to be a real choice where the party members will cast the deciding voteConservative Party leadership contests https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/explainers/conservative-party-leadership-contests (the 2019 contest which saw Boris defeat Jeremy Hunt was a forgone conclusion once gridlock over Brexit had brought down Theresa May). 

Not only is the race happening live and very quickly while the current Cabinet continues to govern under Boris as a “caretaker” PM—not the leisurely, dull and far too long campaigns seen in opposition in Canada—but it is also very diverse and wide open. 

As of Sunday, several major experienced cabinet figures have already launched their campaigns and quit as candidates, but there are still five potential PMs going into the next vote of MPs on Monday and four of them could still credibly argue they are able to make it to next week’s shortlist of two. It should really be a choice from three not two, but those are the rules. 

Grey beards are out—literally and figuratively. Together they are all aged under 50, and there are three women and only one straight white man. David Cameron has even resurfaced to try and claim credit for his modernising efforts, arguing that such a diverse field is proof that his positive discrimination efforts around candidates selection after 2005 have changed the face of the party for good. 

However they got here, the candidates are all fresh and interesting in their own way. And it is the sort of field that progressive parties in most Western democratic societies can’t produce, let alone the sort that any “Conservative” parliamentary party has ever managed to organically throw up. It puts the Democratic Party in the U.S. to shame, let alone the GOP. 

Crucially, MPs alone will not be able to decide the outcome with a coronation, as they did effectively with Michael Howard in 2003 and Theresa May in 2017. There is a front runner, but Rishi Sunak’s lead is not all commanding.UK: Indian-origin Rishi Sunak 4th in Conservative poll https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/uk/uk-indian-origin-rishi-sunak-4th-in-conservative-poll/articleshow/92942600.cms This time the party’s membership—still rather small, ageing and very rural and suburban and comprising not more than 150 thousand paid-up supporters—will have to pick the candidate they favour over the next five weeks. 

I have my own preferences, and I think only three could credibly do the job well, but the merits of each candidate and their professional credentials are not worth discussing. I’ve worked with some of them in a former life and they all have strengths. What is more interesting is what this diverse and dynamic leadership race says about the current state of the Right in Britain. 

The challenges facing the next prime minister are unusually daunting. Rampant inflation. The fiscal catastrophe of COVID. The regional instability of an ongoing European war. A sudden collapse in living standards. Industrial unrest. The domestic indicators for trust in politics and performance of public services like crime, court backlogs, and the health service are all flashing red. 

In normal times this would lead the party to want a senior, experienced figure that they could present as a stabilising force. A Major after Thatcher. Someone with proven ability who could steady the ship and restore some trust. And maybe that urge will eventually win out, and the credible, likeable, effective former-Chancellor Rishi Sunak will be that force. But many of the MPs and most of the members—judging by the polling so far—seem to want something else. 

Being a Brexiteer is important—and voting Leave at the time of the referendum is even more useful, as the Truss campaign has discovered—but we are witnessing the first post-Brexit candidate election where credentials and rhetoric on the defining issue of the new century no longer cut it. The selectorate want something more for tomorrow’s challenges. 

This is a moment where the Right should be reverting to its psychological default of safety first. They should be feeling cautious. Having lost the proven winner, better back the proven successor. Can’t risk electing someone untested in a time of crisis. Recover a reputation for discipline and show they still have the competence to govern well in tough times and back Sunak. 

And yet there is another mood that seems to be taking hold. Conservatives know they have lost a striking, charismatic, and once ultra-popular leader and they have at most 22 months before the next election. Everyone wants a competent prime minister who won’t turn out to be an embarrassing over-promoted career politician. But who will stop the march of the Left in the new culture wars and call out the wokery? And crucially, who will stop the Tories losing their way and becoming the opposition?

Even if Labour cannot win outright under Keir Starmer, most Conservatives know that a hung Parliament is a real possibility next time, and with that comes the risk of the SNP and the Union itself fracturing with another Scottish independence vote. The recovery of the Liberal Democrats plays into this fear too—we are learning that Brexit becoming history has other beneficiaries too. 

So against their better instinct and the traditional urge, the minds of many MPs and party members are already on the next election, and not predominately on whether a certain candidate would make the best PM for two short years come the vacancy in September. 

That suddenly changes the calculation and it is causing Conservatives everywhere to give each candidate a proper second look. MPs are switching allegiance and many are not revealing who they are going to support even now. Betting odds are changing wildly. They are waiting for the debates. Waiting for the slip ups. Watching to see who has the spark of a future winner. 

In “normal” times an Asian MP from a northern seat who voted Brexit would be dynamite for the Tories. But is that enough anymore? His record as a Chancellor who has overseen a rising tax burden has clearly tarnished him in some member’s eyes. Is he still the candidate that offers the best chance of winning the Tories a fifth term in under two years’ time? And if not, are the others any more likely to? 

The surge for Boris in 2019 reflected a bit of this tendency too—the last roll of the dice with an unconventional candidate. May’s disastrous premiership had run into the sand. Brexit was close to being lost and overturned by Parliament and the courts. And all of his flaws were known and priced in. But MPs knew where the public was and members followed Boris enthusiastically. 

The 80-seat majority he delivered and the electoral coalition he created in that subsequent general election campaign was and is remarkable. It will be studied by political science students for years. And it still—just about—holds today. However, it is a new, fragile and unfamiliar coalition that will need to be nurtured if it is ever going to take root properly. This new Tory coalition is more Northern, more working class, and less economically Thatcherite than the party has been used to for decades. It may prove not to be sustainable now that Brexit has happened and that mobilising force and its main champion has receded from view. 

But if it is going to hold together for a new Tory leader so that seats won in the Midlands and the North in 2019 are retained in 2024—even as some historically Conservative seats are lost in the South—then that new Tory leader is going to have to be something radically different from your “typical Tory”. Not like Boris himself. No one is capable of that and the appetite is now there for someone more focused, more serious. But someone fresh and exciting who will make all these new Tory voters look twice and stick with them next time over the promises of change coming from Labour. There might even be entirely new voters to reach, new immigrants, and non-white middle class voters and women under 30 that the party has struggled to reach, even under Boris. 

Commentators say that Boris was a gambler who’s luck eventually ran out. But it could be that the Right in Britain has got a taste for picking a radical candidate—someone who represents a gamble themselves. Maybe the gamble will fail. Maybe the next leader won’t make it. But winning a fifth term from this point in the cycle feels like a pretty big hurdle in every scenario. So in the face of crisis and uncertainty, will the party’s famed survival instinct come back? Are we about to see the biggest gamble of all? Britain’s first black female prime minister, aged just 42?Kemi Badenoch: Anti-woke campaigner making waves https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-62176280

Stay tuned…