Reconceptualizing our Educational System

Watermelon HeadsThanks to the incredible hospitality of Gwen Keith, I now have a Rough Riders hat.  For those of you who are not followers of the Canadian Football League, the Rough Riders are the home team in Regina, Saskatchewan and winners of the 2013 Grey Cup, which is Canada’s Super Bowl.  Similar to the cheesehead fans of the Green Bay Packers, diehard Rough Rider fans slice a watermelon in half, carve it out, and wear it on their heads during the games.  One of many questions I had was: “Should I wear my Rough Riders hat as I make the trip to Winnipeg, where the rival Blue Blombers play?  Would that be like wearing a Yankees cap into Fenway Park?”

Yes, I have much to learn as I visit our member schools in Canada, most especially about the history and policy of the national and provincial educational system here.  Perhaps my biggest learning curve is to fully understand the public funding of Catholic schools, a policy which varies from Province to Province.

In the Province of Saskatchewan, the Catholic educational system is publically funded at the same level as its public school system. For example, Mother Teresa Middle School (MTMS), a member of the NativityMiguel Coalition, is co-located in a building with St. Michael’s Catholic School, which provides a Catholic education for students within the boundaries of the immediate community.  St. Michael’s is governed and operated by Regina Catholic Schools Division (RCS). The principal and teachers are hired by RCS and follow a school calendar, implement curriculum, attend professional development, and administer assessments according to the RCS. Each school does have autonomy for certain administrative or programmatic decisions similar to a public district school in the states. These schools are publically funded Catholic schools and receive 100% of the student allotment of their public school counterparts.  As such, it is accessible by all families in the community regardless of economic status who are interested in a quality education with a Catholic identity.

MTMS, in its 4th year of operation and educating students in grades 6-8, is an independent Catholic school in the Jesuit tradition governed by a board of directors.  Founded as a private independent school, MTMS did not receive any public funding during its first year. Though MTMS could have continued to operate as such, school leadership decided to apply to the Provincial Ministry of Education for an independent school grant which provides 50% of the public school student allotment, or about $5,000 per student. In order to receive the independent school grant, MTMS needed to pursue accreditation from the Province and operated in a probationary mode for three years before receiving accreditation. As an accredited, independent school, MTMS submits reports to and is accountable to the Province through the Independent Schools Division. While the Province ensures that an accredited, independent school is meeting certain requirements, these schools are for the most part operating autonomously.

Again, while MTMS could have continued to operate within this structure, school leadership decided to apply for designation as an associate school of the Regina Catholic Schools (RCS). While there have been associate schools in the Regina Public Schools Division, MTMS has set precedent as the first associate school of the RCS. As an associate school, MTMS remains independently governed and responsible for its educational design and operation and at the same time enters into a more formal affiliation with RCS to access support, such as educational consultants, and programs, such as band, through the RCS. MTMS is able to recruit and hire its faculty and staff, though all hires are part of the RCS system and subject to certain regulations. As an associate school, MTMS now receives 80% of the per student allotment for public funding, which will be about $9,000 per student next year, all of which comes through the RCS and must be applied toward the academic instruction of students. This agreement is reviewed on an annual basis for the relative advantage to both parties.  MTMS is responsible for securing additional funding to offer extended day and year programming, the graduate support program to keep graduates on a path through high school and post-secondary opportunities, and other services necessary to support a holistic education.

Though requirements and regulations differ, MTMS’ relationship to RCS is similar to that of a public charter school to a public school district in the states. The key piece here is that 1) the Province of Saskatchewan publically funds the Catholic educational system at the same level as its counterpart in the public school system, and 2) independent schools have options for relating to either system with varying levels of funding and accountability.

I also met with a group of leaders from the education, community and business sectors in Winnipeg who are committed to founding Gonzaga Middle School in fall 2016.  In the Province of Manitoba, where Winnipeg is located, a decision was made in 1890 to stop public funding of religious schools.   However, as stated in the Feasibility Study for the proposed school, “Political activity and threats of legal action led to creation of the Manitoba Federation of Independent Schools and subsequently to the first funding agreement with the Provincial government in June 1990.  This agreement was renegotiated and an amended funding agreement came into force in January 1996.  In the amended agreement, the Province provides funding to Funded Independent Schools for its operations (e.g., salaries, learning resources), but not for capital expenditures (e.g., building new facilities, upkeep of existing facilities).”  This agreement now allows all independent schools to be funded at 50% of the public allotment, or about $5,400.  These independent schools, Catholic and otherwise, may require families to pay a tuition in addition to this allotment with no enforced tuition limits set by the government.  Similar to MTMS’s contract with the public schools division, no funding is provided for the start-up and operation of a new school until it has fulfilled the waiting period requirement and met certain provisions of the Manitoba Independent Schools Division.

We have written our history of public and private education in the United States, and more importantly we have a history to still be written.  What if we were to rethink everything we know about our educational system and start from the premise that anything is possible if we are to deliver a quality education to all students, especially our most vulnerable students?  If anything is possible, would we think of public schools as all schools serving the public good in partnership with one another with everyone equally invested in and committed to the education? If anything is possible, would we envision the public educational system as a concerted effort of various types of schools, organizations, and groups represented by persons from many traditions and backgrounds who all share in this mission, are accountable to one another and trust in the work of others?   As I have witnessed in two Canadian Provinces, the equivalent of a public school district and diocesan Catholic schools office believe that the emergence of a small, independent, results-driven, Jesuit-endorsed school has an important role in the broader educational system, so much so that they are committed to funding them without sacrificing their faith-based identity.

I do not intend to endorse the systems of these Canadian provinces or to say that the United States should adopt the Canadian system, rather I present them to spark a reconceptualization of how education could be delivered and funded in the United States and to suggest that we can radically rethink our educational system to better serve all students and still remain authentic to our constitution and religious traditions. Faith-based schools have had a significant history of educating students and serving families in our most impoverished urban areas.  Especially in recent years, these schools have been inclusive of students from all faith traditions or from no particular faith tradition at all, not with the intent of conversion to a particular faith, rather with the mission of impacting the public good.  Moving forward, if we were to rethink everything we know about our educational system and start from the premise that anything is possible, how would we ensure that our faith-based schools continue in the education of the economically-poor and marginalized and play a role in a comprehensive public educational system that is impacting the public good?

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