Poor American kids, like their Australian counterparts, continue to slide in assessments of educational achievement even as the sums poured into government schools soar. The president-elect’s endorsement of vouchers, choice and competition is the last, best hope to reverse that decline
The current school-funding model is about to end and the federal, state and territory ministers of education are soon to meet and begin the process of deciding what will happen at the start of 2018. Crucial to the new funding model will be whether it continues the same old approach of governments controlling taxpayers’ money going to schools and thus forcing them to follow the ordained and endorsed policies in regard to curriculum, teacher employment and accountability.
That’s on this side of the pacific. In America president-elect Donald Trump offers an alternative called “school choice”. Trump has just appointed a school-choice advocate, Betsy DeVos, as Education Secretary and committed $20 billion towards “private school choice, magnet schools and charter laws”. That DeVos is already being denounced by all the usual suspects is an encouraging sign.
School choice involves local autonomy versus centralised, bureaucratic control, plus vouchers that see the money follow the child to whatever school his or her parents decide is best. In addition to being inherently good, the belief that parents should have greater control over where their children are educated signals to schools, both government and non-government, that if they are ineffective and fail to meet parental expectations enrolments will suffer. Instead of being run for the benefit of teacher unions, their executives and the thousands of bureaucrats employed at head office the focus is on giving schools the freedom to best reflect the needs of their communities.
Innovations such as charter schools and vouchers involve local control over curriculum and staffing and ensure that parents, especially those in disadvantaged communities, have the financial means to choose between privately managed schools and those controlled by the state. Florida, Washington and Milwaukee pioneered charter schools and the movement has gone international, with conservative and progressive governments in New Zealand, England and Sweden introducing a more market-driven model represented by school choice and increased local autonomy.
While not giving schools the same degree of autonomy and flexibility as charter schools in the US, the Australian government’s Independent Public Schools initiative is also based on the belief that local control leads to greater innovation and improved educational outcomes. As detailed in James Tooley’s book The Beautiful Tree, privately managed and funded schools are also increasingly popular in India where, because they achieve stronger results compared to government schools, poor parents are going without to pay the cost of enrolling their children.
As argued by Trump, the rationale for school choice is that a more market-driven model is preferable to the current command-and-control approach implemented and enforced by the heavy hand of bureaucracy and intrusive government mandates. It should not surprise that two of America’s largest and most influential teacher unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, campaigned against Trump and in favour of Hilary Clinton. It also should not surprise that both teacher unions, similar to the Australian Education Union, are opposed to Trump’s ardent support for charter schools and vouchers.
Ignored is that the current system is not working.
Similar to Australia, where record levels of increased investment have failed to lift standards, the American experience is that, while it invests more in education than most other OECD countries per head of population, its students are going backwards in international tests. The results achieved by African-Americans, in particular, are unacceptable, with Trump arguing “it is time for school choice to help free children from failing government schools and close the achievement gap. School choice is the civil rights issue of our time.”
Also ignored is the increasing consensus that a more market-driven model is more effective and beneficial than state control. US researcher Andrew J. Coulson in a paper titled ‘On the Way to School: Why and How to Make a Market in Education’ concludes “free and competitive education markets have consistently done a better job of serving families than have state-run school systems”.
Based on an analysis of international tests, such as PISA and TIMSS, European researcher Ludger Woessmann also favours school choice, concluding that students achieve stronger results when there is competition, autonomy and choice. The success of Australia’s Catholic and independent schools, that achieve stronger academic results compared to the majority of government schools even after adjusting for home background, illustrates the benefits of school choice and school autonomy.
The fact that non-government schools achieve stronger results with less state and commonwealth funding compared to government schools also proves how effective they are and why they should be properly funded and used as role models for how to strengthen the system. In 2009 Milton Friedman argued for a more market-driven model of education. It appears his polices will finally be embraced.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and author of Dumbing Down.