If the state starts paying for a private school, does the state have a right to say how it is run and what it teaches? That debate is under way here in Ontario, the most populous province in a country where the provincial, rather than the federal, government has responsibility for education. The issue has already spawned heated debate and a major court case.
There are two types of private schools involved. The first, called the ``separate schools,'' are Roman Catholic; in the United States they would be called parochial schools. The second are ``private schools,'' where well-to-do families send their children.
The separate schools have taken some government money and want even more; the private schools say they will turn it down if it is offered.
Separate schools already receive guaranteed government funding up to Grade 10 because of a century-old law. Catholics elect their own school trustees and run separate school boards, supported by taxes collected from Catholic families. The separate schools have long sought public funding for the last three years of high school, as well as what they already receive.
That support was promised by William Davis, who stepped down as premier of Ontario last monthFeb.. Last June Premier Davis promised the separate schools further public money for those last three years beginning in September of this year.
Much criticism has been leveled at his proposal. Mr. Davis reacted by appointing a commission to see whether public support should be given to all 570 private schools in Ontario, religious and secular alike. The commission has to advise the government by May 31.
The reasons for opposition to the proposal vary.
Public school teachers and administrators are worried that sending additional money to the separate schools would mean a drain of students to the Catholic schools and public school closures and layoffs.
Religious groups other than the Catholics feel they should get a share of public money.
Many educators -- including most of those at the private schools and even a few Roman Catholics -- want the upper grades of separate schools and all grades of the private schools to stay privately funded because they suspect additional government money would be followed with government interference. St. Michael's College, a Catholic institution in Toronto, has decided to turn down the public money for both upper and lower grades and become a privately funded school.
``The school can't really be private if it is funded by public money,'' says Hugh McDougall, vice principal of St. Michael's. The school says that its hiring, program, and admissions policies for the upper grades would have to change with the government financing.
Most of the private schools take the attitude expressed by the Conference of Independent Schools, which represents 23 institutions with 11,000 students. ``Sure the government money would be great, but not at the expense of our independence,'' Angus Scott, executive secretary of the private school group, told the commission on education funding. One area in which they feel the government might interfere is the hiring of teachers who have not graduated from a government-approved teacher's college, a common practice now.
Some Catholic parents worry about their schools' being forced to hire non-Catholic teachers, accepting non-Catholic students, or having the religious part of the education watered down. As it is, some non-Catholics send their children to the separate schools now because the schools are strong on so-called ``traditional values,'' such as uniforms and discipline.
The largest public school board in the province -- the Metropolitan Toronto School Board -- will challenge the Davis proposal in court. The board has retained J. J. Robinette, Canada's top constitutional lawyer.
Mr. Robinette says he will argue the case on constitutional grounds: ``The proposal of Mr. Davis, whichever form it takes, would constitute discrimination based on religion in favor of the Roman Catholic supporters and against all other persons who are taxpayers, and therefore under the charter his proposal would be invalid.''
Davis's successor, Frank Miller, will have to deal with this issue. And if he doesn't, the courts will.