school choice

The ‘right’ to government subsidised choice of schools is another wasteful snout-in-the-trough entitlement

Parents who choose a private school for their child have a ‘right’ to expect governments to help with the costs because they are taxpayers; so the argument goes in Australia. Certainly chief executive of Independent Schools Victoria, Michelle Green, makes such an argument.

But where does this so-called ‘right’ come from? Neither Michelle Green nor anyone else making a similar claim has an adequate answer.

We pay our taxes so that our governments can provide public services such as public hospitals, public transport, the armed forces, the ABC and so on. These are services that private industry cannot or should not provide. Just because someone chooses not to use public transport does not entitle them to claim a public subsidy for their car costs! Emergency medical treatment at casualty is free at public hospitals but costs $500 at a private hospital. We pay our taxes for public security provided by the police. If we want additional private security for any reason we pay that ourselves and don’t expect a subsidy from our neighbours.

There is a choice. But choice is only available for those who have the wherewithal to make that choice.

We have heard about the end of the age of entitlement. However, when a person on the basic wage of $35,000 a year pays his or her taxes, that person should not expect their taxes to help someone who is on a salary of $150,000 or more per annum to exercise school choice. Any notion of choice in this case is bogus.

The reason for the strong enrolments in private schools in the growth corridor suburbs in major cities in Australia, mentioned by Green as evidence of people exercising their ‘choice’, is due in part to the lack of public infrastructure and planning. At the same time, government funding for capital expenditure by private school systems and independent schools has become incredibly generous, another reason new schools are proliferating.

Governments inspired by ‘providing choice’ will always find it easier and more ideologically satisfying to get private systems to build those extra new schools, than to go to the trouble of providing the schools themselves.

Green mentions so-called “low-fee” private schools. However these can be up to 85% publicly funded. As to her claim about the wonderful multicultural make up of private schools, she does not give us details. Some children who were born overseas, or whose parents speak languages other than English at home, come from very socially or educationally advantaged families. There are clear divisions of such advantage across different ethnic backgrounds. I point out the Gonski Review found that 80% of all disadvantaged children are in the public system.

More than 40% of Australian secondary children now attend private schools, either so-called independent or faith-based systemic schools. Australia has one of the most privatised school systems in the OECD since Chile withdrew all public funding to private schools in 2014.

Prior to the late 1960’s private schools in Australia received little government funding. When such funding was introduced, it was to help bridge gaps for very poor Catholic schools, the sentiment was egalitarian not entitlement. What has grown since then is unique in the world, and not in a good way.

While most OECD countries have private schools, very few of them receive public funding as it occurs here. Take England for example, the home of the elite private school, and the exclusive private schools in the USA: not one cent of taxpayer’s money goes into their budgets.

The purpose of an excellent, appropriately funded public education system is to help ameliorate the inevitable inequalities that result from the lottery of birth. No better mechanism for creating a well-educated general population has so far been discovered.

The importance of choice for parents has been promoted at the expense of equity for students. The choice model promoted by federal and state governments has contributed to the decline in enrolments in public schools nationally.

Stephen Dinham of University of Melbourne and the president of the Australian College of Educators wrote:

It is hard not to conclude that what we are seeing is a deliberate strategy to dismantle public education, partly for ideological and partly for financial reasons. If these developments continue then the inevitable outcomes will be greater inequity and continuing decline in educational performance that will provide the proponents of change with further “evidence” to support their position and for even more far-reaching change.

Funding for private schools in Victoria, for example, increased by 18.5% per student, or eight times that of public schools between 2009-2014. The Australian average increase for private schools was $1,181 per student compared to only $247 for public schools.

However the savings to governments for shifting the responsibility of schooling to private institutions and systems is illusionary.

The most comprehensive review of school funding  since Gonski by Lindsay Connors and Jim McMorrow argued that state and federal governments would have saved $2 billion annually over the past four decades had they educated private school students in the public school system.

Increased public investment in non-government schools between 1973 and 2012 has increased the overall costs to governments rather than producing overall savings.

Recent trends in school recurrent funding analysed  by Bernie Shepherd and Chris Bonnor  strongly suggest that over forty per cent of students in Catholic schools in 2016 will average as much, if not more, public funding than students in similar government schools. By 2018 an additional forty per cent will most likely join them. Half the students in Independent schools are on track to get as much, if not more, than government school students by the end of the decade.

This finding emerges as one of the most significant to date from analysis of My School data. School funding in recent years has done little for student achievement and nothing for equity, including the $3 billion over-investment in better-off students, without any measurable gain in their achievement.

On current trajectories State and Federal governments, within four years, will be funding the vast majority of private school students at levels higher than students in similar government schools.

Concerns about funding equity should now be joined by concerns about effectiveness and efficiency in how we provide and fund schools.

Each private school pupil now receives, on average, a non-means-tested public subsidy of over $8000 per year and yes I believe this is indeed at the of expense of the less privileged public school student.

The focus of our investment in education should urgently be in public education systems not in providing ‘choice’ for some families.

And so much for all the talk about the end of the age of entitlement.


David-Zyngier copyDavid Zyngier works in the Faculty of Education at Monash University as a Senior Lecturer in the areas of Curriculum and Pedagogy. He was previously a teacher and school principal. His research focuses on teacher pedagogies that engage all students but in particular how can these improve outcomes for students from communities of disadvantage focusing on issues of social justice and social inclusion. He works within a critical and post-structural orientation to pedagogy that is distinguishable by its commitment to social justice (with interests in who benefits and who does not by particular social arrangements) and its dialectic critical method investigating how school education can improve student outcomes for all but in particular for at risk students.