SCHOOLS: by John BallantyneNews Weekly
The choice so few parents can afford to make
, August 8, 2009
The idea of giving parents greater say in where their children are schooled is one that has been championed by News Weekly for decades.
The debate on how governments should fund schools has recently been kicked off again by the free-market think-tank, the Institute for Public Affairs, with its report, A Real Education Revolution
It says: "If Australia wants a real education revolution, it should ensure government funding follows the student and not the preferences of education ministers or bureaucrats."
It advocates the voucher model of funding schools. Instead of government deciding which schools get money and how much, government would distribute the entire education budget in the form of vouchers for parents of each child of school age.
Parents would be free to spend their vouchers at any school of their choice, state or private, religious or non-religious.
As News Weekly
has long argued, this would tremendously revitalise primary and secondary education. Schools, in order to get funding, would naturally seek to raise their standards in order to attract student enrolments.
Liberal Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull is known to favour the scheme. Seven years ago, he publicly spoke in favour of school vouchers, describing the scheme as "core Liberal stuff".
Earlier this year, former Prime Minister John Howard went so far as to claim that the Liberal Party deserved credit for supposedly pioneering, in the 1960s, state aid for independent, non-government schools.
He said it was "Sir Robert Menzies who, as prime minister in 1963, introduced state aid and ended 100 years of discrimination against Australian Catholics" (Letters, The Australian
, January 2, 2009).
However, the truth is the Liberal Party did not initiate state aid, and was initially very cool towards the idea.
The credit for the scheme must go to the Democratic Labor Party which pushed for state aid (or "state justice", as DLP Senator Frank McManus preferred to call it) for independent schools.
The Liberals under Menzies dragged their feet on the issue. It was only after the DLP threatened to switch its voting preferences from the Liberal Party to the then Country Party (now National Party) that the Liberals suddenly came to their senses and adopted state aid as government policy.
While state aid was then a great step forward, it has never been an entirely satisfactory means of promoting parental choice in school education.
Commonwealth funding of non-government schools meets only a fraction of the costs of educating a child, and does so in an administratively messy way. Grants to independent schools are subject to an elaborate means-test of the resources of the school that the children happen to attend.
If a school upgrades its facilities or raises its own private funds, it risks jeopardising its level of government funding and having to charge higher fees to cover the shortfall.
This burden is then borne by the parents. The penalty of paying higher school fees is all very well if the parents concerned happen to be wealthy; but it is grossly unfair to less well-off parents who may be struggling to afford fees so that their child can attend a good school.
Voucher funding is a superior method of helping parents, because it can be tailored for individual family circumstances, for example, with top-ups for low-income families, for children with disabilities or other special needs, or for families living in remote country areas.
Not everybody, however, is happy with Commonwealth assistance for non-government schools. The left-wing Australian Education Union is predictably incensed at the voucher idea.
AEU federal president Angelo Gavrielatos proclaimed on July 20: "A school voucher system would deny basic guaranteed funding for schools and undermine a public education system that is the foundation stone of our society and has delivered for Australian students for over 150 years."
Here he is quite wrong. The voucher scheme need not result in any reduction in overall government funding for schools. However, it would, by enabling parents to shop around, ensure that more money flowed to good schools and less money to bad schools. How could that possibly "undermine" the Australian education system?
It should be a cardinal principle of distributive justice that if you want to help the disadvantaged, the most effective way is to subsidise the consumer, not the producer.
There will be many battles ahead before school vouchers become a reality.
But giving parents the right to choose their children's education will be worth the struggle.John Ballantyne is editor of News Weekly.
B.A. Santamaria, The Price of Freedom
(Melbourne: Hawthorn Press, 1966), Ch.13: "Equality in Education".
Alan Maynard, Experiment with Choice in Education
, Hobart Paper 64 (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1975).
Fr John W. Doyle, S.J., "School Funding: Power for Parents", Bulletin of Christian Affairs
, October 1980, reprinted as: Australian Festival of Light Resource Paper
(Family Voice Australia), August 1982.
John Ballantyne, "School vouchers: introducing choice for parents - ten questions about school vouchers", News Weekly
, May 8, 1993, pp.18-19.
Julie Novak, A Real Education Revolution: Options for voucher funding reform
(Melbourne: Institute of Public Affairs), July 2009.