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November 29th 2016 print

Kevin Donnelly

Donald Trump’s Class Warfare

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

school choiceThe 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.

Comments [11]

  1. Great article. Your employers may not be happy but you highlight the main problem with the independent school sector in Australia. My parents could not afford a private education but I obtained a scholarship to a private school which has lead to becoming a military officer, multiple post graduate qualifications and a lucrative career, a life I wouldn’t have achieved going to the local high school and I am grateful.

    But my only choices were to go to religious schools. Even at 12 I was an atheist and my parents were on the fence. Of my options I chose the least religious school but was still subjected to weekly chapel and the waste of hundreds, if not thousands of hours of religious education that would have been better spent on something useful. Forcing a child to endure religion to obtain a better education and life prospects is unconscionable.

    I was passed over for house captain in favour of the school priest’s son despite topping the academics, captaining various sport and chess, debating teams and running the main school charity. I was informed that is was because if my lack of religious commitment. That should not happen in a secular country.

    Hopefully the development of independent schools free from the influence of Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism and Islam will come sooner, rather than later for the huge numbers of kids who deserve a better education without indoctrination.

    • Eeyore says:

      Two of my 3 Children have attended schools based on religion, both are non believers and come from a household that range from, in the case of my wife, a nod to the big guy right through to my own atheistic bent.

      Neither have been harmed by attending at various times, catholic or protestant schools. In fact I believe they have benefited from understand the shades of grey between the strict religious mindset, the casual believer and the atheist. Even more so understanding differences between the Christian sects. # 2 Son once told me some years ago when he was 6 that he enjoyed the Catholic school better because they had better stories.

      Understanding people with a different world view is a positive thing. Whilst I do not believe in the existence of the big guy upstairs much of the morals are beneficial, do unto others, no coveting your neighbours livestock, false witness etc. Hearing this from others is a positive thing providing parents are engaged to soften the more outlandish positions and the people providing the education do not wallow in supremacy over and derogation of others (EG: Islamist fundamentalist Madrasas).

      In short its never a waste to engage with people who think differently, just in the case of some just a wee bit testing on ones patients.

      • I get your point about experiencing the views of others but my key point is that all the best schools are religious. No matter how liberal you want to represent yourself as, it is inherently biased for an atheist or non conformist (my uniting church school had some Jewish kids who surprisingly didn’t obtain school accolades) child to be forced into that environment.

        When Christian, Muslim, Jewish or any other religious parents are forced to send their kids to secularist or atheist schools to obtain the best education they can afford then your argument will stand up. For now we have a horrible bias of religions forcing their rubbish down vulnerable children’s throats due to tax breaks and tradition from a century ago. You should be ashamed for defending it.

  2. Ian MacDougall says:

    Any Trump proposal, directive, preference or whatever is gold-plated and rock-solid …until he backtracks on it.
    Thus the personal assessment of him by his incoming Secretary of State, Mitt Romney:

    “Mr Trump is directing our anger for less than noble purposes. He creates scapegoats of Muslims and Mexican immigrants, he calls for the use of torture and for killing the innocent children and family members of terrorists. He cheers assaults on protesters. He applauds the prospect of twisting the Constitution to limit first amendment freedom of the press. This is the very brand of anger that has led other nations into the abyss,” Mr Romney said.
    “His domestic policies would lead to recession. His foreign policies would make America and the world less safe. He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president.
    “Here’s what I know. Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He’s playing the American public for suckers — he gets a free ride to the White House and all we get is a lousy hat.”

    - Mitt Romney, to be sworn in shortly as Secretary of State.
    Should make for some interesting Cabinet discussions.

    http://www.news.com.au/world/north-america/donald-trump-is-furious-with-kellyanne-conway-for-going-rogue-and-attacking-mitt-romney/news-story/092b8996d72161de021a93b7c141ea08

    • Peter OBrien says:

      US Primaries are always viciously personal and highly divisive, so much so that a foreigner finds it hard to believe they can work together post election.

      Whether Trump carries through with his plan or not, says nothing about the merits of Kevin’s argument

  3. Keith Kennelly says:

    Give the dog a bone Ian. Trump won he’s the President elect. Give him a fair go. You were wrong about him being elected why would you be right about his upcoming performance?

    Fair go Ian, you are starting to sound like one of those carping warmists who can’t accept the weather isn’t performing to their expectations.

    • Ian MacDougall says:

      Keith:

      None of us have any option but to wait and see as far as Trump is concerned. And as for “you are starting to sound like one of those carping warmists who can’t accept the weather isn’t performing to their expectations”, I hate to have to be the one who tells you this, but weather is not climate.

  4. Keith Kennelly says:

    And then you should also know the definition of climate includes reference to weather unless of course you are one of those carping warmists that try to exclude weather from influence on climate.

  5. Warty says:

    Whether government, or private, here in NSW, we are still compelled to follow entirely PC electives, with the NSW Board of Studies introducing ‘learning across the curriculum’, which has ‘embedded’ within it a new fangled ‘cross curriculum studies’, which includes ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island’ studies; Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia; and finally, Sustainability, which includes within it aspects like the effects of the industrial revolution on the environment; the overuse of natural resources; the rise of environmental groups and all things Green. The ‘outcome’ of the modern education system, at least here in NSW, and I suspect on steroid in Victoria and Tasmania, is the development of two to three generations of increased membership to the Green Party and their partners in crime: GetUp and the Socialist Alternative.
    So, we may increase choices with regards to the schools one might enrol one’s children, but the curriculum content remains the same and the outcome remains the same: we’re stuffed until we launch the conservative revolution.
    Happy Christmas.