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Educational pluralism puts children and families first. Deani Van Pelt explains why

Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Deani van Pelt, a senior fellow at the Cardus Institute and president of Edvance Christian Schools Association. They discuss the state of education policy in Canada and the prospects for a new, more child-centric model of learning that reflects the principle of “educational pluralism.”

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Deani Van Pelt, who’s a senior fellow at the Cardus Institute, as well as the Fraser Institute, a visiting fellow in Charlotte Mason Studies at the University of Cumbria in the United Kingdom, the president of Edvance Christian Schools Association, and one of the country’s most thoughtful and compassionate voices for what she describes as educational pluralism.

As Canadian students get ready to return to the classroom, I’m grateful to speak with her about the state of education in Canada, and the prospects for a more child-centric model. Deani, thank you for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

DEANI VAN PELT: Thanks for having me, Sean. It’s great to be here.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s start with some definitional questions. What do you and others mean by educational pluralism? And what is an independent school?

DEANI VAN PELT: Educational pluralism, stated really simply, is a system of education that allows for the funding and regulation for forms of schools that are not necessarily government-operated. So, very simply, it’s a focus on who operates the school: is it always a government provider? Or is there space for non-government providers?

We’ve got some friends in Geneva, the Organisation for the Right to Freedoms and Education, and they’ve just done a fantastic paper on what educational pluralism is. It’s a global phenomenon and it’s rooted in the right to education, but also parental rights with respect to education. So, there are lots of definitions. It includes lots of aspects, but basically, there’s a diversity of forms of educational provision beyond the exclusive role of state-provided schooling, and that’s where we get to this question of an independent school. 

So, what’s an independent school? Again, simply stated, it’s a school that is operated by a non-government agent. So what is that? Typically, it’s a not-for-profit, a good set of community folks get together and say, “Let’s design a school around various ideas,” whether they’re pedagogical, philosophical or other convictions, and the school gets set up, registers as an independent school in its area of jurisdiction and moves forward. Does it mean it’s not regulated? Of course not. Does it mean it gets government funding? In most cases across the world, yes, it does. Educational pluralism is very simply, as we said, just that space for more providers than government agents. 

SEAN SPEER: I think, Deani, our listeners will respond positively to the idea of pluralism. Pluralism is a value that, all things being equal, people honour and respect in various aspects of modern life and in society. But setting aside the normative case for educational pluralism, what are the empirical arguments for an education system that extends beyond the standard government-run school model? What are the benefits of a pluralistic model for students and the system as a whole?

DEANI VAN PELT: There’s a vast and ever-increasing body of literature that gets to just that question: what’s the evidence for government-operated schools, but also non-government-operated schools? You know, if you want to look at some of the most recent literature that has come out of Cardus, for example. I’ll list four to get us started.

There’s this argument about good fit. When there’s a good match between the family, between the student and their own convictions, and the school that the child attends, you see better academic outcomes. A full paper on that, and many other papers. But when the fit is good, a child thrives and the success academically is measurable in quite a significant way.

Secondly, it makes access to diverse forms of education more equitable. So, there’s a very large OECD, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, study that looked at 65 countries that partially fund independent schools. And in the countries that partially, or even more significantly, fund over 50 percent of the cost of the independent schools, the socio-economic disparity across families that choose independent schools or families that choose government schools almost disappears. So, if we’re looking for a fair, equitable approach to education, there is definite evidence of this in that study (which includes almost 500,000 students), and towards equitability.

And then the third reason would be about social cohesion. An excellent study about that was done by Ashley Berner recently out of Johns Hopkins University. She asked the question “Do independent schools form good citizens?” She found that taken together, the contribution of independent schools towards civic engagement actually outperforms—in the vast majority of studies that she looked at, independent schools outperform on civic engagement in their graduates. 

So, what does that look like? It’s things like student’s political knowledge, their civic skills, they vote at higher levels, they volunteer at higher levels, their charitable giving is higher, their respect for civil liberties and for others’ opinions are equal or superior—they call it the independent school advantage—to their colleagues in government-provided schooling. So, it contributes, in a nutshell, to good citizens.

The last thing is we get good results when there’s more choice. There are strong incentives for a school to look over its shoulder and say, “They’re doing well over there. They’re attracting some folks over there. Let’s take a look.” So, the incentive to improve quality in every school has been well documented across the literature as well. Those are four, I would say, bits of research that I don’t think can be ignored when we’re looking at the benefits of independent schools.

SEAN SPEER: That’s great, Deani. A very comprehensive answer that reflects the various benefits associated with independent schools. But let’s discuss a common critique. In particular, one often hears the argument that a more robust independent school system will create inequities in education because it will disproportionately benefit wealthy students. 

Let me ask a two-part question. First, what’s the current lay of the land in terms of independent schools in Canada? Tell us a bit, in other words, about the more than 1500 independent schools in Ontario alone. And second, who are the one in 15 K-12 students in Ontario attending them?

DEANI VAN PELT: Sure. So, we do definitely have a robust independent school presence in Canada. But before I say that, the choice for government schooling is still by far the choice that is made. Over 90 percent of kids students in Canada attend government-operated schools, or attend what we commonly call a public school. But if we take the public as a whole, about 8 percent of the public attends an independent school, and about under just around 1 percent would be homeschooled. Certainly, that’s the data that we have pre-COVID, the comparable data. So, we’re really looking forward to what has changed in the last two years. But in general, the norm is to attend a government school. But let’s talk about the independent school sector in Canada. 

As you said, there are close to 150,000 students in Ontario that attended independent schools. Across the country, there are close to 450,000 students that attend an independent school. But again, up against 5.3 million that attend government schools it’s a small share. So, what does their life look like? What kind of schools are they attending? The myth is that these are all wealthy students, just the rich. They’re being siphoned off from government schools and they’re on their way to some kind of exclusive elitist sort of education. Well, nothing could be further from the truth, Sean. 

In five of the six largest provinces in Canada, there is government funding for independent schools. Not at quite the same rate, so, you know, we spend about $14,000 per student in this country for the education of every student in a government school, but the funding would be up to 50 percent [for independent schools] and a few jurisdictions slightly higher. But the point is the education for students in independent schools is partially funded. And what does that mean? It goes back to the research I just talked about earlier. It means independent schools are accessible to a wide diversity of socioeconomic backgrounds.

And when independent schools are run, that are based in communities, often the cost to operate is a little lower than a government school. Some of these schools don’t even have to require much top-up for tuition. It’s not like they have to recover the other 50 percent, let’s say, in funding that they aren’t given. So, there are some efficiency benefits as well to that.

But again, to get back to your question, the concerns about this being an inequitable system, it doesn’t bear out. When you take out just the elite schools—and let’s be really clear, that’s less than 5 percent of the independent schools in our country—if you take those schools out, take those families out, and you look at the average income of a family who chooses an independent school and compare that to a family that chooses the government operated school. 

There were two really good studies that came out of the Fraser Institute a few years ago, they looked at British Columbia and Alberta, and they found that, by and large, the income of the families were about the same whether they chose an independent school or sent their kids to a government school. So, it’s not the choice of the wealthy. In a province like Ontario, where there isn’t government funding—so just to be clear, the four provinces in the West and Quebec offer funding for independent schools—but in Ontario, where there is no funding for independent schools, it makes it much more difficult for a family of lower socioeconomic means to make the choice. 

Are they closed off from making that choice? No, they’re not, schools operate within communities. They offer bursaries. There are philanthropists that get together to make sure that these options are somewhat available to students. But is it fair in Ontario? No, it could be a lot fairer, and this so that the schools can be much more accessible. Still, it gets to your point. Is it only the rich choosing religious or independent schools? Certainly not.

There are some other arguments. I think the loudest argument that you and I hear against independent schools, or even the presence of independent schools, is that it siphons off money from public schools. That has been repeated so often that you and I have almost come to believe that point. But if we take a look at a problem—let’s look at Saskatchewan, for example—they fund students at just under $6,000 per student in an independent school, and they have a sector called qualified independent schools. You know, under $12 million in that province goes to fund qualified independent schools, but 2000 students attend those.

That money is not taken from the public system. It’s part of the budget that is dedicated to the education of the public in that province. There’s still nearly $3 billion that goes to the government schools. In fact, so few students in Saskatchewan choose independent schools, less than 3 percent. This is a minor blip, this particular funding, from taxpayer dollars. What it does do is it creates options for parents when there isn’t a good fit, when a child isn’t flourishing, or when there isn’t a match, either in terms of philosophical, religious, or pedagogical convictions of the parents. It creates another place for those families to attend. Someone recently said it’s a safety valve. And again that is respectful of the diversity of families and the diversity of needs that students have. One size doesn’t fit all. One size fits a lot but not all. 

So, to say that an independent school takes money from a public school is the wrong way of looking at the question. One hundred percent of the students in our provinces are students in the province. They’re part of the public. Let’s get on with figuring out how to best educate each and every one, and that’s what an independent school does, it contributes to that.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a great answer. Thanks, Deani. In a previous answer, you emphasized the extent to which independent schools remain a relatively minor share of the overall education landscape. But I was struck in an article that you wrote for The Hub last April, that there’s been significant growth in the number of independent schools in Ontario and elsewhere across the country. What’s going on? What do you attribute this growth to?

DEANI VAN PELT: I’ve been studying the independent school sector for several decades, and indeed, the growth has been remarkable. So, while the number of students in each jurisdiction, each province across the country has very slowly crept up, the number of independent schools just in comparison to growth in that the rate is just exponential.

We do have numbers, for example, of the amount of independent schools in Ontario, that the growth in the last two years—so that’s one of the stats we do have access to—there’s been 12 percent growth in the number of schools. So, about 165 independent schools have opened in the province of Ontario alone. If we could extrapolate across the country, that probably means about 200 independent schools have been added in our country. If you go back to some research we did using data from 2014-15, there were close to 2,000 independent schools across the country. So, there are a lot of independent schools. 

If I go back to 2005, there’s been a 20 percent growth in the number of students that attend independent schools just in Ontario. I mean, any number I give you, any province, I can show growth. So, it’s an intriguing concept and it does show us that despite the barriers, as you and I talked about there are some financial barriers to choosing these providers—and this is where we get back to our question of education pluralism—are increasingly opening the doors of new independent schools across this country.

That poses a really fascinating question: Are they opening it in response to demand? Or are they opening it in response to the fact that they’re looking around and they’re seeing that there are other ways to provide an excellent education that aren’t currently happening in a government-operated, government-provided system? I am so intrigued by the innovation and the entrepreneurship that is behind that story of growth. 

SEAN SPEER: Let me follow up on that topic, Deani. If I’m putting myself in the position of a policymaker, how, on one hand, can policymakers enable and support that kind of innovation and dynamism occurring within the education system, and on the other hand, ensure that there’s a high level of quality? Is there a trade-off here?

DEANI VAN PELT: I think it’s a really important question and it gets back to our foundational commitments as a country and within each province. So, in Canada, we spend about $75 billion per year on education. I don’t think people begrudge that expenditure. We want our future generation to be well-educated. We want our adults, if they want more education, to have access to better education. So, the commitment to high-quality education and to spending on that, I think is non-negotiable. Knowing that 90 percent of our population chooses government school, and maybe more would choose something else, but it’s still the vast majority of citizens in this country who will attend a government-operated school. Those schools need to be of the highest quality possible, and they need to be appropriately funded. So, please don’t understand in this conversation any lack of commitment towards that goal. 

But we know that there is this constant balance then. Alright, if there’s going to be an opportunity for a diversity of providers we’ve got to get the balance right between how those schools are regulated and how they’re funded. This is not an argument for no government regulation. It’s not an argument that says if you receive any government funding, you, therefore, need to be very heavily regulated. It’s about finding the balance.

We did a study a few years ago. We went through every single province and we looked at all the different types of approaches to independent school policy approaches. British Columbia has four different groups that are funded. Several are funded, one is not funded. In fact, every province has independent schools that are permitted to exist but aren’t funded. There are now about two dozen different approaches to the funding and regulation of independent schools in Canada. And there’s a new one starting this year in Saskatchewan-certified independent schools, they’ll receive 75 percent of what would have followed the student had they gone to a government school.

What this just says is there is no one right regulatory approach to the funding and operating of independent schools. It says that each province needs to be in touch with what’s going on on the ground, get the balance right, get the set up of a regulatory environment that allows freedom for innovators to come in, and keep the barriers to entry low—which I would have to say we have that in Ontario, and perhaps that is the explanation for so many independent schools opening.

So, getting the regulatory balance right is really important. Policymakers in each province can look across the country and look at the solutions. Every province has a different set of policies regarding the funding, regulating, and operating of independent schools. We have a lot of creativity here in Canada and we should not ignore it. We really should learn from one another. Other countries have different approaches. So looking at lessons from other jurisdictions is, I think, going to be beneficial as we move forward. We don’t have to use 20th-century solutions. And the vast majority of policy and regulation around independent schools were designed in the 20th century.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a great segue, Deani, into my next question. As someone who studies public policy a bit, I’m struck, as you say, by the degree of provincial variation on education policy. It stands in contrast to say health care or even social welfare policies where there’s considerable provincial convergence. 

Can you speak at a high level about some of the variation across the provinces in terms of regulation and public support for independent schools? And maybe put differently, from your perspective, is there a gold standard model that other provinces should be emulating or pursuing?

DEANI VAN PELT: Thanks for the question. I think it’s really important to notice that every province funds more than one system of public schools. That shows, at its core, that we’ve got a lot of patience in Canada for diversity. We fund public, English public, French public, English Catholic, French Catholic in a lot of our provinces. In fact, our constitution is founded on making that kind of arrangement for the freedom for independent Roman Catholic separate schools to be fully government funded. I think Canada does stand out across the world for its willingness to understand those diverse providers and to get that fit right. That’s our legacy, that’s the heritage on which we built at the provincial level.

For example, a province like British Columbia, they do not fund Roman Catholic schools as part of the government system. They’ve chosen instead to just have the English and the French systems fully government-funded, and then move all forms of religious schooling and all forms of pedagogical variations—and I should just be clear, about half of independent schools have a religious definition, and the other half have some sort of a pedagogical or academic unique focus, and just it varies across province to province. But that just gives a bit of a sense.

Back to British Columbia: British Columbia says if you’re going to be a religious school, that will be part of the independent school system. And then within that British Columbia says they’ve got four groups and the first group is funded at 50 percent. The second group, more elite schools, they’re funded at 35 percent per student, and then group three and four, they’re the groups that they want a lot of autonomy, a lot of regulatory autonomy, and they’re not as interested in the funding. So, British Columbia, I think, offers a good standard to take a look at in Canada.

But the innovation that we see in a place like Saskatchewan, as I said, they’ve got different new variations in independent schooling and the level of regulations worth looking at. And then of course, Alberta, because of its interest in charter schools, is a standout among the other provinces for the fact that it permits charter schools that are fully government funded but they have independent operators within the public system. So again, that’s another nuance that I think we could be paying a little more attention to. 

SEAN SPEER: I want to take up the issue of the historical and constitutional origins of the Canadian education model. I know you’re an education expert, not a constitutional scholar, so I understand if you want to pass on this question. But do you know how much, if any, scope there is, Deani, to change Ontario’s long-standing policy of preferencing Catholic schools over other denominational schools or other forms of independent education?

DEANI VAN PELT: The question obviously comes up from time to time. I think it’s very important to note that about a third of Ontarians have been educated and continue to be educated through the separate Roman Catholic system. So, it’s fully entrenched in the ethos and in the education delivery in this province. And when various groups take a look at the possibility of Roman Catholics no longer being part of the public school system, the costs are enormous to change that. It is so entrenched in the system. 

So, there are some practical barriers, but also, I think, historical and legacy barriers to doing so. It’s baked into our identity, it’s baked in, as we said, to the founding identity of this country. What I think probably holds more weight in a province, like Ontario, and certainly we can learn from other provinces, is that it’s okay to have a Roman Catholic system as part of our government schools. But what isn’t okay is the fact that other religions don’t have access to some funding for the forms of education.

 And as our province and our population become increasingly diverse, there are more religions, of course, represented than just the founding face in the 1860s, which were predominantly, of course, Protestant and Roman Catholic. So, recognizing our times, which other provinces have done, and offer funding for schools of other faiths: Jewish, a variety of types of Christian schools, a variety of Muslim schools, Jewish schools, even Sikh schools and etc. I think we need to be thinking this is the 21st century, this is not the 19th century. And that could be an excellent policy development is to say “yeah parents do want to educate a lot on their religious convictions. Let’s look at how that can be made possible.” And we have examples, as I said, right at home here in Canada for how to do that for a province like Ontario. 

I think it’s really important to recognize that when the European Union just recently updated, it produced a document on the modernization of education in the EU four years ago, and the statement is in there that parents should have the right to have their children educated according to their pedagogical, religious, and philosophical convictions. That’s what a modern system of education does, is that it continues to recognize those long-standing declarations and covenants that came into place in the 20th century, recognizing the importance of diversity, but then making that kind of statement. The vast majority of European countries don’t just state that, they actually put dollars behind it so that conviction is possible for parents to choose.

SEAN SPEER: In the context of two Conservative Party leadership races ago, then-candidate Andrew Scheer put forward a proposal to enable families who send their kids to independent schools or those who homeschooled to deduct a portion of the associated costs from their federal tax bill. 

You liked the idea in principle, but had some concerns in practice. Do you want to talk a bit about those concerns? And more importantly, what do you think the right policy approach ought to be?  

DEANI VAN PELT: I think my concern at the time was the fact that it was a federal initiative. I realized Australia did this some decades ago. The federal government got involved in the state-wide funding of their independent schools. That was an anomaly for them, but they still went ahead and did that. I think we need to be very careful about federal involvement in something that is under provincial jurisdiction. There doesn’t seem to be a reason for us to remove provincial jurisdiction for education. In fact, Sean, I’d like to argue for more local input and its involvement in the design and delivery of education, not something further removed.

The other part, though, of the policy proposal at that time was the fact that it was a tax credit. There wasn’t direct funding to an institution, to a school. It was funding directly to parents, and this is where I think policy innovators could have some really fruitful conversations. 

What is a forward-looking approach to funding educational pluralism in Canada? If we sat down and said, “We wanted to be innovative, we wanted to be a leader among the world, in respecting diversity and equity in education,” would we continue to fund schools? That was the solution we came up with in five provinces in the 20th century. Would we continue to do that? Or would we start to offer some more funding to parents, and then let parents take that credit, and then they pay a higher level of tuition? The schools, on the face of it, are funded by parents and their direct choice. I think that would be a really fruitful question and conversation to have. 

One of my cautions would be that Canada is a global leader in funding—and certainly the five provinces—in funding independent schools and setting up a system where independent schools are funded. The way that those schools work together with their associations, British Columbia is just an excellent example. Those associations that represent the various independent schools work together with government. It’s healthy, it’s dynamic. There’s great dialogue and space there. So, respect that the independent schools are part of the education system in that province seems to get reinforced when you regulate the schools and you fund through the schools. 

So, I’m not ready to walk away from that. I think Canada is on to something and I think we’re onto something that we could share with the rest of the world. Funding towards parents, though, for certain aspects of a child’s education, if your child has special needs, for example, maybe there could be some kind of a credit that could go to parents because maybe they can’t find the school in their jurisdiction, or the public school in their jurisdiction just isn’t able to meet the needs as maybe a different school or an independent school might. I think this is the time to have a healthy, vibrant, creative conversation about that. I’d be curious about the arguments in both directions.  

SEAN SPEER: Let me ask a final question about homeschooling, which as you said earlier, is still less than one percent of the student population but something more and more families are thinking about. I’m intrigued, for instance, about the idea of homeschooling or some model of homeschooling with friends or neighbours. 

You have a direct experience with homeschooling. Do you want to reflect a bit on that experience? What was it like? How much work was it? And do you have any advice?

DEANI VAN PELT: I think the motivation behind why to homeschool is really important. I was starting to develop, even though I was a public high school math teacher, I was starting to develop a real hunger to answer the question “Why do we educate the way we do?”

I was successful. I love schools, obviously. That’s how you end up being a teacher in a public school. But then, when I had my own kids, I started asking those deeper questions, “Why do we educate? What is a full education? What does it look like when we’re trying to prepare a child in their entirety for a flourishing life? What is it to have happy children and a full life through their childhood, not just as, you know, schooling or education being preparation for some other period?” 

I had never asked in all of my university years or in all of my studies to become a teacher myself, I had never asked those deeper questions. So, as I became really intrigued with why we educate and are sure we’re doing it right in this country, I came across many different educational philosophies and philosophers. And I just kind of hungrily started reading through that. Obviously, the next question is, well, “Okay, if these ideas are true, what does it look like in the classroom?” And then I started looking for schools and I couldn’t find schools that were applying those ideas in the way that they could be applied. 

Now I was in rural Ontario, let’s be fair. When you’re in a small population centre you can’t expect a wide diversity of schools to be around. But I was intrigued about what was increasingly becoming possible. And this is just as the internet was coming out, so we could learn so much more about what was going on in other jurisdictions and had access to resources and conversation in ways we never had before. 

Our children did go to schools for some time, but I ended up thinking “Let’s give this a try ourselves.” My husband and I suddenly found ourselves wearing this hat called homeschooling parents. That was not a title we were seeking, but it was an approach to education and a lifestyle that we increasingly found so rich and so animating in just so many ways. Is it hard? Is it all-consuming? Yes, absolutely, because you are putting up your hand to take responsibility for the entire education of your child, you can no longer say that it’s the school’s job. It’s your job. It’s 24/7 and it’s a lifestyle, and it’s a massive commitment, and obviously has implications for the finances in the home.

Homeschooling is increasing, as you and I know. Obviously during the pandemic parents had a taste of what it’s like to have their children home full-time. I would not call that experience homeschooling by the definitions that we traditionally used because the student’s education was the responsibility of the school in which they were enrolled. So, parents had to come alongside during COVID in many cases, but it was only those who, let’s say de-enrolled from school, and actually said, “Okay, no, now I am the primary educator.” That’s what I would say is the definition of what it is to be a homeschooler. 

So, we hear anecdotally, again, as I said, we don’t have enrollment numbers yet from the last few years, certainly not for the province of Ontario, but anecdotally we know that the numbers of families that are sticking with carrying the main responsibility for their kids’ education is increasing. What we also have seen is these collaborations with families. We used to call them co-ops. We’d get together on a Tuesday, we bring in a teacher, someone with expertise. In our case, it was someone who was a literary expert, and she would read and teach our kids to write. Some of the things she taught my eight-year-old I still use in my own writing. I mean, we just had fantastic times together with families who built a community around that. 

But that was Tuesday. And then Wednesday, we had another community where we all got together and we hired some choral conductors, and we had orchestras for kids who had a couple of hundred kids come out every Wednesday or whatever day it was. And we all worked together; that was like from 3 to 7PM. So, we still could do what we thought we needed to do at home in the morning with our core subjects. But that was Wednesday. And, then Thursday afternoons, we hired swimming instructors, and we took over the local community pool and had a couple of dozen kids and some families. And it was just really creative; it was organic; it recognized what was available to us in our community, and was a real way of honouring the expertise of some other homeschooling parents.

There was a real innovation and a beautiful spirit of learning and kind of raising our kids together. Now, we didn’t do it for all the years that we were a parent, but for those few years when I was really hungry to give my kids an education that was filled with books and the opportunity to be outside for a lot of the time, opportunity to really pursue their music studies with their good hours, like no practicing piano at 7:30PM after a long day. I mean, the best hours of the day could go to the instruments, and it was really a very satisfying experience and period.

SEAN SPEER: Well, that’s just a beautiful portrait and a very enlightening one, Deani, as has been this conversation. Deani Van Pelt, who as I mentioned, among other things, is the president of Edvance Christian Schools Association, thank you for joining us today at Hub Dialogues.

DEANI VAN PELT: Thanks for having me, Sean.