Monday, October 20, 2008

O, Canada!

My Canadian sojourn was interesting in all kinds of ways, from some very interesting conversations with Canadian independent school educators (including a couple of American expats now leading great Canadian schools) to the New Brunswick Museum in St. John to the flight home via Montreal over a gorgeous landscape striated by the glaciers and upholstered in green, orange, and red damask foliage. I love flying into the St. Lawrence Valley, where at some point the farmsteads stop being the big squarish lots of the English survey system and become long, narrow plats perpendicular to the river, the farm lots of the French Habitants oriented to give access to the main thoroughfare of the 17th century--the river itself.

This doesn't have much to do with schools except insofar as the landscapes remind us of the occasionally astounding differences between the U.S. and Our Neighbor to the North. I learned a great deal on my visit about the ways that independent education in Canada differs from the American sort.

First of all, provincial policies on certification and licensure make the requirements for teaching different from province to province. Then there is the matter of taxation: many of the things that in the States are regarded as non-taxable (like tuition remission) are in parts of Canada regarded as taxable benefits. In some places this extends to school-supplied housing, even in boarding schools.

Furthermore, scholarships to students have also been taxed, and may still be in some jurisdictions. (Readers, any factual help here?) Hence the tradition of financial aid is different in its nature and extent; the old concern about the wealthy subsidizing the poor is very much alive in some school communities.

Anyone who has messed about with curriculum for a while knows that Canadian educational websites were great sources of rubrics and information on multiple-intelligence teaching when such concepts were barely known in the U.S. Additionally, Canadian schools have been forward-thinking about gender equity for years. One thinks of Canada, rightly or wrongly, as progressive in many ways, which makes the scholarship situation, in particular, seem peculiarly retro. It is also clear that many of the educators who were at the conference I attended are keenly interested in expanding the reach of their schools, and so one suspects that creative ways abound of meeting the challenges of a tax system based on the principles other than those that drive the American one. (Home ownership may The Canadian Dream, for example, but there is no mortgage deduction to make it any easier to attain--a little fact that has helped the Canadian economy avoid certain aspects of the current U.S. meltdown.)

The privileges and protections given to private education in the U.S. grow out of both a revolutionary tradition of separation of church and state and a general willingness of Americans to suppport with tax exemptions the blooming of many ideas in the educational marketplace. (Avoidance of taxes, as we learn from both Sarah Palin and American history--viz. the Boston Tea Party--is the most patriotically American of aspirations.) Simultaneously radically liberal and reactionary in their origins, the tax benefits given to American independent schools allow these schools to aspire to and to accomplish relatively easily things that similar schools in more economically restrictive places--like Canada--must work hard to achieve.

I have even found myself considering whether Canada has some parts of this right. The tax privileges granted to independent schools in the U.S. may support educational diversity and choice (and indirectly they certainly support my own ability to earn a living and to receive an education for my children), but they may also make it a bit too easy for schools to thrive whose purposes are as much elitist as egalitarian. We like to think that our independent schools are engines of social mobility, a curious notion that virtually accuses our public schools of failing to play this role, but we also know that these schools can be helpful in maintaining the status quo. The anti-voucher argument that government subsidies (i.e., tax breaks) to non-public schools make it too easy for educationally savvy families who might otherwise push for improvement to opt out of the public education system holds some water. Of course, a system in which scholarships are taxable actually inflicts a certain punishment on those who opt out; there doesn't seem to be an obvious middle ground short of universal choice, a kind of single-payer education system more European than North American and thereby pretty much out of the question on this side of the Atlantic.

With the U.S. poised to elect a liberal government and Canada having just reaffirmed its commitment to conservative rule, the political polarity of North America may be for a while reversed, and it will be interesting to see how things play out in terms of tax policies and educational systems in both countries. It's quite possible that nothing much will change for independent schools in either place, but for a weekend I was pleased to be part of an exchange of ideas and points of view. It has given me something to think about, on the flight home and beyond.

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