March 20th 2010

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: Rudd's hospital scheme: spin before substance

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Rudd lays groundwork for health referendum

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Tony Abbott's faux pas alienates allies

SOUTH AUSTRALIA: Can SA's Liberals topple Labor's Mike Rann?

FOREIGN TRADE: Australian shareholders suspicious of China's motives

GLOBAL FINANCIAL CRISIS: Gathering crisis engulfs the European Union

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Australian force in East Timor reduced

OPINION: Labor unconcerned about Australia's debt explosion

DIVORCE LAW: Family Law's unending war on fatherhood

MEDICAL RESEARCH: Cannabis causes psychotic disorders in young users

UNITED NATIONS: Aid for Haiti delayed by condom shipments

OPINION: Eight arguments for school voucher funding

CIVILISATION: The politicisation of modern education

AS THE WORLD TURNS: Couple nurture virtual child as real daughter starves to death; Staring into the chasm; French intellectual victim of hoax

CINEMA: Suspense-filled American war thriller - The Hurt Locker, rated MA15+ (for war violence and language)

BOOK REVIEW: GOING ROGUE: An American Life, by Sarah Palin

BOOK REVIEW: WEDNESDAY WARRIORS: Doing it for the Jumper, by James Gilchrist

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Eight arguments for school voucher funding

by Malcolm Smith

News Weekly, March 20, 2010
I am a grazier from a town with only one high school. Because of the limited range of subjects taught face to face, and for religious reasons, I made the expensive choice to send to send my children away to a boarding school.

My family is not eligible for any allowances for distance, although, if we lived a short distance up the road, we would be. I applied for the by-passing allowance twice and was rejected both times - I suspect more for ideological reasons than for any other reason.

It was B.A. Santamaria, along with the Democratic Labor Party (DLP), who was ultimately responsible for persuading Sir Robert Menzies to initiate Commonwealth funding, or "state aid", for independent schools in 1963. It was a landmark decision at the time. However, since then, there has been no real certainty in its application as it depends on the government of the day. It is also open to political attack with frequent misrepresentation by left-wing teacher unions concerning funding levels.

Mr Santamaria later in life said that he wished he had pushed for a system where funding followed the student, in effect a voucher system.

Voting with one's feet

This has been successfully implemented in America in poorer areas of New York. It has seen parents and students vote with their feet, and, for the first time in generations, given disadvantaged people a real opportunity to get a good education through being able to choose a school that produced the results they wanted. Before this, they were restricted to enrolling in the closest government school - as are many people in isolated parts of Australia.

If a voucher system were introduced for all funding of primary and secondary education in Australia, it would yield a number of benefits:

1) Fairness. Every student of a given school year in Australia would receive identical government funding.

2) Choice. We live in a liberal democracy. We all pay taxes which are used to fund education. Why should only certain students have access to top performing schools because of geographical location or income? Why should others, because of a lack of access, have to pay private fees (on top of taxes) for something that others don't pay for at all? Why should a bureaucrat be able to tell me where my child can be educated with my tax dollars?

3) Competition. A voucher system would for the first time actually give parents real choice. Mobility would allow them to select a school that suited their and their children's needs. Good schools would attract more students, strengthening them and increasing their funding. Under-performing schools could be identified and helped, or else be closed so that their funds could be freed up for schools that were performing.

4) Better quality teachers. Why should the best teacher in a school get the same pay as the worst? A voucher system would give parents and principals a real say in how a school was run, and in the hiring of staff. A principal would be able reward good teachers.

5) Attracting professionals to isolated areas. In isolated, rural areas there is a real problem of attracting professionals to service these communities. A doctor with a young family would find a rural practice a lot more attractive if greater choice was available for his or her children's education. This would have a flow-on effect, as a town with good medical services and educational choices would attract new residents.

6) Greater power for parents. Teacher unions are there to represent their members; children are not members of these unions. These unions fight tooth and nail against every attempt to empower parents, e.g., with school literacy and numeracy tests and truth and simplicity in reports. Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered a laudable message, at the launch of the Government's My School website, on the need to provide parents with some sort of indication of schools' performances (Sydney Morning Herald, January 26, 2010). Any proposal for a voucher system would no doubt antagonise teacher unions. Why? Because it would shift power from them to parents and principals at the local level. So next time you hear "fairness" spouted by the education unions, ask yourself: fairness to whom?

7) Equality of opportunity. Outcomes can never be guaranteed, but opportunities can be.

8) Elimination of duplication of services. At present, our school education is administered by both state and federal bureaucracies. If state governments introduced voucher funding, there would be no further need for Commonwealth funding. If the Commonwealth introduced nationwide voucher funding, there would be no further need for state funding.

Two-tier system

We live in a liberal democracy under which the state promises a taxpayer-funded free education. However, this operates as a two-tier system. Some parents can exercise choice thanks to their geographical location, or because they are rich enough to pay private fees, whereas other parents have little or no choice at all. One kilometre can make the difference between those who qualify for government help and those who don't.

The Isolated Children's Parents' Association (ICPA) tries to assist parents who are deprived in this way.

Should the ICPA be necessary? Not if we had a political class that was honest, courageous and open enough to have a debate on voucher funding. But since we do not, perhaps it is time we started it.

Malcolm Smith is a 42-year-old married grazier from western NSW with five children, three of whom are at present away at boarding school. He is a member of the ICPA.

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