Time to change tack on education
Education is a sensitive issue. It raises heated debate. Yet often there are subversive- elements at work within the debate itself. Notions of educational opportunity, for example, are frequently overridden by talk of ‘free education” for all. Both sides -of politics talk of government schools slowly becoming sub-standard.
Amidst the debate, it seems some of us have forgotten that non-government schools are far from the bastion of the wealthy.
In fact, such a view ignores the many low income earning parents who sacrifice a great deal to provide their offspring the prestige and quality afforded by independent schools. According to the Association for Independent Schools of Victoria, one in five children from families who earn less than $20,900 per annum attend these schools.
The non-government sector is an integral part of our education system- 30% of Victoria’s schools are non-government schools, and they educate 34% of all Victorian students. Students in non-government schools receive 22% of all government—funding, and save Victorian taxpayers $1 billion each year - that’s $430 for every Victorian taxpayer.
The cost of many non-government schools do not make them accessible to everyone, but the vast majority run extensive scholarship programmes that enable bright children - regardless of their financial circumstances - to take advantage of the facilities on offer.
Such reasons form the argument of economists such as Milton Friedman, who argue that discussions about educational opportunity that refer to the proportions of students from poorer and richer families at various schools are misleading. Such discussions are really about the distribution of wealth – a separate issue entirely —rather than educational opportunity.
Currently, parents are not able to clearly see their tax dollars at work; how are they to know whether taxpayer dollars are benefiting their child in Kew High School as equally as it is benefiting a child studying at Scotch College?
Perhaps it is time this government adopted Friedman’s proposal of a voucher based system, where individual child bearing families would be given a specified sum per year, to be spent on “approved” educational services. This proposition is nothing new; and the eventual aim is to foster competition and choice, and thus higher standards of education. In Milwaukee, in the US, voucher students dramatically increased their test scores across the board.
Mayor John Norquist was enthralled with the new competition. “Within five years Milwaukee will have the best public school system of any large city in America. That’s because our public schools are going to respond to this-power of the consumer that the parents now have to choose quality. When the schools know the ‘parents are going to choose quality, they’re going to deliver quality.”
Australia needs a radical change like this because in effect, the richer segments of our society are currently paying twice: the first is when their tax dollars are allocated in unequal proportions to subsidise certain needy schools and then again when they fork out for-a hefty $13 000 a year in school fees for their own children.
Here’s what it boils down to: parents are yet - to learn concretely how the government’s funding to the school their child attends, is actually being’ spent. The confusion within contrasting Federal and State education funding programmes has made it difficult to track down where the money is going.
But how much money are we talking about here?
According to Education Minister Brendan Nelson, overall, state schools get nearly $20 billion in funding, while non-government schools get slightly more than $6 billion. Dr Nelson said that the Australian Education Union is ignoring clear signs that more parents want their children educated in private institutions. “The money follows the children,” he said.
One reason for the drive towards private is that the lack of information surrounding state schools has fuelled parent distrust.
Bill Daniels, the Executive Director of the National Council of Independent Schools’ Associations wrote in The Canberra Times in 2002: “The non-government sector has grown, to the extent that now nearly one in every three Australian school students is educated in a non-government school”. Jennifer Buckingham, a policy analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies, adds: “If Australia were to adopt a similar system, where funding follows the child to the school of their choice, it is likely a greater variety of secular nongovernment schools would eventuate”.