Should public schools be privatised? Day 5

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

From Andrew Norton: 

Dear A.L,

As you suggest, former private school students might show more civic attitudes and behaviour than former government school students, but that doesn’t show that the school is the cause. Identifying causes requires much more research than I have done. I mentioned this finding not as an argument for private schools (it may or may not be that), but because you suggested that public schools provide a shared ‘basic understanding of democratic values’. I say, consistent with the evidence I think, that we will get that either way. Civics is a neutral factor in this debate.

If you are overstating the importance of civics in choosing a school system, I think you are understating how radical my proposal is. I don’t want to fund private schools on the same basis as public schools; quite the reverse I want to fund what are currently public schools on the same in-principle basis as private schools are now, according to their students’ socio-economic background.

I’m open to argument on the best measure of socioeconomic background. The current system uses proxies based on where the student lives, you favour more accurate ATO income statistics to create—if I read you correctly—personalised, income-tested vouchers.

The ATO may be the best original data source, but I prefer funding schools on an average basis, rather than via vouchers. I have the usual concerns about the work disincentives linked to means testing, but from an educational perspective individualised funding would encourage parents who must pay high fees anyway to send their kids to a high-fee school in an affluent area. That would replicate the lost peer effect problem that you mention.

Unlike the public school lobby, I don’t think kids should be conscripted into providing peer effects for their classmates. But if they voluntarily attend a school with a lower average SES rating their own family’s, everyone may end up better off. Each group takes advantage of the other group’s socioeconomic status.

Consequently my proposal, as you say, wouldn’t take all rich parents out of the government funding system. But it is still likely to take a lot more out than your plan to keep the public school system. Extrapolating from ABS estimates of school attendance by family income, about 180,000 students from high-income families attend government schools, not so far behind the 223,000 students from these families in private schools. Under your system, high income families in government schools get much higher educational subsidies than low SES families in private schools—about 186,000 of them. Unless there is some very compelling reason for encouraging public schools, this arrangement seems regressive and inequitable.

Obviously, I don’t think there is any such compelling reason. I think my system could capture whatever positive features public schools have. I would privatise all existing government schools, but there would be no need to abandon positive aspects of the public school ethos, such as a special commitment to the disadvantaged. Schools that did that would get the highest funding rates, enough to keep education free. But no schools would be stuck with the bad aspects of public education, such as protection of incompetent or unsuitable staff, poor curriculum, and excessive centralised control.

To achieve economies of scale, as I noted earlier in the week, schools could form chains or join associations of like schools. National chains or associations could create national curricula, without going down the monopoly curriculum path that, alas, both political parties are taking us. With competition between them for students, they would want to prove that their curriculum is the best—perhaps they would, as you hope, look at the empirical evidence. If some chains or associations could convince parents than small classes are ineffective, they would claim market share by offering lower fees or spending fee income on something else.

In the end, you take a conservative approach to schooling. Like a conservative, you adopt the circular argument that if it has never been done before, and so has no historical evidence, it should never be done at all. Like a conservative, you are confident that existing institutions can adapt. But where is the evidence for that? Public schools have been in ‘crisis’ for as along as I can remember, despite every Labor government coming to power promising to make a difference in public education. Another did so last month. Yet already we can see the seeds of another failure, with most of the money labelled as ‘education’ being blown on more family welfare through the education tax refund, and not a word on teacher quality.

Yours,

A.N.

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