Should public schools be privatised? Day 3

[Introduction] [Day 1] [Day 2] [Day 3] [Day 4] [Day 5] [Day 6]

From Andrew Norton: 

Dear A.L.,

Periodically, our politicians rediscover civics in schools. In 1994, the Keating-appointed Civics Expert Group released a report supporting civics and citizenship education. One of their reasons was that a survey, which they had commissioned, revealed widespread ignorance of our political institutions.

Two things are important about the report’s date. The first is that it was published about 120 years after education became free and compulsory, yet neither attribute has yielded much political knowledge. The second is that was published about 140 years after democratic institutions were established in Australia, and 90 years after universal suffrage. Australia is a long-term successful democracy despite the absence or failure of civics education in our public schools. 

While understanding political institutions can do no harm and would probably do some good, you don’t need it to acquire democratic values. The citizens of stable democracies like the US and the UK show similar levels of ignorance to our own. Democracy is so deep in the culture as to not need teaching or defending in principle, even while we argue endlessly over the detail. Children much too young to participate in elections intuitively understand that voting is a fair way of deciding things.

There is no reason to believe that private schools would challenge this democratic ethos. Surveys show that current ex-private school students are more active in political affairs and more strongly in favour of democratic rights than those who went to government schools. (Though generally there are only minor opinion differences regardless of school background.) In my view, preserving public education to teach civics is a non-solution to a non-problem.

Moving from general principles to practical details, I don’t favour your option (1); the conventional voucher scheme. Liberalising 100% of demand but only 30% of supply would only deliver a faster version of what we have now, of government schools losing 0.3% or 0.4% of market share a year. We need to liberalise supply as well, by making the current public schools independent. To achieve economies of scale schools could form associations or join chains; the Catholic systemic schools already have lower per student costs than governments schools. The important thing is accountability to parents rather than to central bureaucracies and politicians.

You wonder whether the private sector would set up a school in Cape York, which seems to be your feasibility objection to option (2), the government getting out of educational delivery. There is charity in the private school sector—indeed, donated money is already rescuing some Cape York Indigenous students from their abysmal public schools—but I agree that’s not enough. We need the right price signals.

Which brings us to the tricky issue of finance. As you say, some parents cannot afford proper schooling for their kids. On the other hand, lots of parents can, and do  already, spend significant dollars on their children’s education. The latter group count against conventional voucher systems. It would cost $5 billion in additional taxation to fund them on the same basis as government schools.

Instead, we could fund all schools on a similar basis to private schools now, according to parental SES background.  That would lead to reduced rather than greater government expenditure, with tax cuts helping parents finance higher private outlays. Schools servicing the most disadvantaged areas would get the most money, providing what was necessary to make private schools viable. Schools in the most affluent areas could be taken completely out of the public funding system; this if nothing else about my proposal would please the AEU.


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