April 29th 2006

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Taking stock of the wheat scandal

EDITORIAL: Watering Australia: a national priority

BORDER PROTECTION: Why Australia needs naval, air force bases in Torres Strait

NATIONAL SECURITY: Lives endangered by latest intelligence leaks

ENVIRONMENTALISM: How the Great Barrier Reef is mismanaged

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Labor misses the bus / All is vanity / Kosovo's mafia / When the bills come in / Open season on Christianity

REGIONAL ECONOMIC POLICY: The end of international economic cooperation? (Part 2)

PERU: Latest Latin American country to turn left

SCHOOLS: The choice so few parents can afford

MEDIA: ABC's Easter assault on Christianity

THE WEST AND ISLAM: No alternative but to defend our values

Social cost of unfettered capitalism (letter)

Robert Manne's media critique defended (letter)

Why have a Department of Foreign Affairs? (letter)

CINEMA: Caped crusader for the know-nothing left: V for Vendetta

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The choice so few parents can afford

by Kevin Donnelly

News Weekly, April 29, 2006
Kevin Donnelly argues that school vouchers are an education debate we have to have. Empowering parents is not only good in theory; the closer power resides with people the better.

The issue of government funding to non-government schools has returned to centre stage. The ALP has decided to get rid of its hit list of so-called wealthy private schools, finally realising that all parents pay taxes, regardless of where their children go to school.

At the same time, the Federal Government has announced a review of the formulas used to decide how much support non-government schools receive.

For many Australian parents, especially those demanding flexibility and choice in their children's education and who are financially penalised for doing so, it is a review we have to have.

One way forward would be to introduce school vouchers, an idea that is not as radical as opponents make out, given that Australia already has a de facto voucher system. All students attending non-government schools, both Catholic and independent, attract some degree of state and federal funding.

Freedom to choose

Instead of education being centrally managed and funded and the state having monopoly control over the school system, vouchers allow the money to follow the child and, in turn, give parents the freedom to choose between government and non-government schools.

Based on figures compiled by the Productivity Commission, the average recurrent cost to state and federal governments of educating a student in a government school is $10,003 a year. The equivalent figure for a non-government student is $5,595. Under a full voucher system, all parents would be entitled to the same amount of money, possibly means-tested, to spend on the education of their children and the freedom to choose their children's school.

Australian parents want choice in education. The percentage of students enrolled in non-government schools grew from 23 per cent in 1980 to 33 per cent last year. Forty per cent of students attend non-government senior secondary schools.

The benefits of vouchers are many. Empowering parents and giving them increased responsibility and control over educational decision-making is not only good in theory; the closer power resides with people the better. Experience in the US shows it also helps to strengthen community ties and community engagement represented by social capital.

At the moment, school choice for Australian parents is restricted to those wealthy enough to buy into those areas where there are successful government schools or to pay costly fees. Why not give parents on low incomes the same type of choice by providing vouchers? Such is the situation in Milwaukee in the US. And in underdeveloped places such as Puerto Rico and Colombia, voucher systems are targeted at disadvantaged communities on the basis that education represents a ladder of opportunity.

If, as a result of vouchers, more students attend non-government schools, this is also a good thing.

In the independent schools sector, excluding Catholic schools, it is estimated that governments save $2.2 billion a year as a result of fewer students going to government schools, money that can be spent on health and other services.

As argued by Canberra-based education writer Mark Harrison in Education Matters: Government, Markets and New Zealand Schools, vouchers also provide increased competition and help break down monopoly control represented by the state system.

"The market-based approach relies on choice and competition,'' Harrison writes. "It relies on increased incentives to perform, improve and change - the incentives of the market - such as the need to attract students and pressure from competitors. Competition provides strong incentives; it punishes mistakes and rewards success and provides continual pressure for improvement.''

As so graphically illustrated during Victoria's gas crisis in 1998, when an industrial accident led to Esso-BHP closing down the plant, monopoly control means all are made to suffer when something goes wrong.

Think of the damage that whole language and fuzzy maths teaching approaches are causing. Non-government schools are in a stronger position to resist destructive experiments such as outcomes-based education, where students no longer fail and academic studies are a thing of the past.

American academics such as Milton Friedman and Terry M. Moe also argue that parental choice represented by vouchers frees schools from provider-capture, where schools are managed more for the benefit of education bureaucrats and teacher unions than for those at the local level.

One of the greatest dangers facing education in Australia is the need to attract and keep highly qualified, motivated and committed teachers. Surveys show that many become dispirited and leave the profession because of over-regulated and time-consuming curriculum and accountability measures imposed from on high.

The way teachers are rewarded also promotes mediocrity, with little financial or professional incentive for more able teachers. Vouchers provide a solution in that opening the system to market forces leads to a stronger incentive to raise standards by innovation and rewarding better teachers.

Notwithstanding the arguments in favour of vouchers, there are caveats.

First, non-government schools are able to succeed because they have the autonomy to respond to the needs of their communities and to manage their own affairs.


In his new book, Vital Signs, Vibrant Society: Securing Australia's Economic and Social Wellbeing, federal Labor MP Craig Emerson argues that the funding distinction between government and non-government schools should be abandoned. But if the price of increased government funding to non-government schools is that they have to succumb to the same type of over-regulation and interference faced by government schools, then that freedom is lost.

Giving parents more power to choose and freeing up the education system will also fail to be effective if all schools, government and non-government, are made to follow the same centrally mandated and controlled state-designed curriculum.

While there is an argument that all schools have to abide by a minimum set of regulations and accountability measures, and there may be a common curriculum in areas such as literacy and numeracy, it is also essential that schools are not forced to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach.

  • Kevin Donnelly is director of Education Strategies and author of Why Our Schools Are Failing (2004).

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