The Politics of School Choice

In the general euphoria surrounding the end of the Howard government era in late 2007, there was certainly an expectation that certain conservative shibboleths would wither up and drop: the toxic-ly [sic] named “work choices”, and growth-at-any-cost CO2 pollution … The cynics amongst us felt that, in its determination to win power, Labor was deliberately backpedalling on an earlier opposition to the Socio-Economic Status model of funding so beloved of Howard and David Kemp and Amanda Vanstone and Brendan Nelson (remember them?). It was dressed up as “not doing a Latham”—by which was meant not stating the bleeding obvious, as Mark Latham had done, that the SES system had delivered up grossly distorted and totally indefensible outcomes even within the first couple of years of its operations.

—Gerard Noonan, a journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald, speaking at the National Public Education Forum

One only needs to remember the impact of Mark Latham’s hit-list of so-called wealthy private schools, taken to the 2004 federal election when he was leader of the ALP opposition, to appreciate the sensitivities surrounding the issue of funding to non-government schools. Described as a return to the politics of envy and the divisive funding debates of the 1960s and 1970s, the attack on funding to Catholic and independent schools was seen by many commentators as a significant factor in the ALP’s defeat.

In the 2007 election campaign it was clear that Kevin Rudd and the then opposition education spokesman, Stephen Smith, had learned a lesson from the past. In the same way that the ALP presented itself as economically conservative, the party’s education platform followed a middle-of-the-road agenda.

Kevin Rudd argued for a back-to-basics curriculum, holding schools and teachers accountable for performance. On funding, he stated that the existing socio-economic status model employed to apportion funds to non-government schools (introduced by the Howard government) would be kept until 2012 and that no non-government school would suffer financially if the ALP was elected to government. In his newly-gained enthusiasm for school choice, Rudd even went as far as arguing that if parents are not happy with their local school, they should “vote with their feet” and move their children to a better one.

In response to the announcement that the funding model for non-government schools would be protected, traditional ALP supporters such as the Australian Education Union condemned the policy about-face. In the words of the current AEU president, Angelo Gavrielatos, “To maintain that indefensible model until 2012 makes a mockery of everything the ALP has said about introducing a needs-based funding model.”

Midway through the Rudd government’s first term, it is clear that anger about what critics see as the government’s failure to cut funding has not abated. At a recent conference in Canberra, the “National Public Education Forum”, a host of speakers condemned funding to non-government schools and criticised the Rudd government for what one speaker described as its cynical and timid appeasement of the non-government-school lobby.

The AEU describes the Canberra conference as an “historic event”. It involved a range of pro-government-school groups, including the Australian Education Union, the Australian Secondary Principals Association and the Australian Council for State School Organisations. Also involved were a number of education commentators, journalists and academics, all committed to what Maralyn Parker from the Daily Telegraph described in her speech as a “hearts and minds battle” to win a “fierce and hard nation-wide fight-back for public education in Australia”.

Given that the current funding formula is to be reviewed by the Rudd government, and those opposed to non-government schools have embarked on a well-orchestrated, national campaign to have it overturned, it is timely to put the case for school choice. Arguing in favour of school choice is especially needed because, while the Rudd government’s rhetoric supports the existence of non-government schools, its highly centralised, bureaucratic and intrusive policy agenda for schools (see “The Ideology of the Education Revolution”, Quadrant, December 2008) seeks to undermine their autonomy and ability to best meet the needs and aspirations of their communities.

Parents embrace school choice, as proven by the thousands across Australia who now send their children to Catholic and independent schools. Just over 30 per cent of students attend non-government schools. In most states, the figure increases to approximately 40 per cent at Years 11 and 12. According to 2008 Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, over the period from 1998 to 2008 the percentage of students attending non-government schools grew by 21.9 per cent, while the corresponding figure for government school students was 1.1 per cent. A 2004 survey carried out by the Australian Council for Educational Research revealed that 34 per cent of government school parents, given the financial means, would shift their children to a non-government school. A more recent South Australian survey carried out by the Advertiser revealed that 60.7 per cent of parents interviewed would choose non-government schools if money was not the issue.

As Professor Brian Crittenden, one-time Professor of Education at La Trobe University, has argued, parents have a moral right to educate their children according to their ethical and religious beliefs and convictions:

If we take seriously the pluralist respect for diversity in areas of belief where people may reasonably differ, it would seem that parents should be free to choose a school that reflects their ideas on the proper nature of formal education, or one that is compatible with the values they are imparting to their children in the family.

A number of Australian and international agreements protect the right of parents to choose schools based on religious conviction and to have them educated according to their moral beliefs. Given the Left’s enforcement in government schools in the states and territories of politically correct, secular curriculums, where knowledge is relative and truth is subjective, it is even more important that faith-based and independent schools are allowed to exist and to provide what many would see as a more substantial, morally sound and enlightened curriculum.

Contrary to the argument put by the Australian Education Union that parents choose non-government schools because they are so well resourced or because of their aura of privilege and social acceptability, surveys consistently show that parents value Catholic and independent schools for a range of other reasons. Whether the reason is discipline, religious emphasis, teacher quality, values in tune with those of the home or a rigorous or well-rounded curriculum, parents consistently see non-government schools as better than government schools in meeting their aspirations and the needs of their children.

As might be expected with a system that suffers from provider capture (where unions and self-serving bureaucrats control schools), the response to losing market share, instead of addressing the underlying causes and making government schools more attractive, is to argue that funding to non-government schools should be cut, that governments should regulate to stop new schools being established and that restrictions should be placed on enrolments.

The President of the Australian Secondary Principals Association, Andrew Blair, goes one step further by arguing that all non-government schools, at the risk of losing funding, should be integrated into the state system. Once integrated, such schools would be forced to abide by government policy in areas like curriculum, enrolments, equity and social justice issues, and fees would be capped. Even a cursory glance at the suite of National Partnership Agreements endorsed by the Council of Australian Governments (ranging from early childhood, to a national curriculum, to teacher registration and all tied to funding) reveals the extent to which the Rudd government has already embarked on a campaign to micro-manage non-government schools and force them to act like government schools.

One of the furphies regularly aired by critics is that non-government schools are a drain on the public purse and that such schools, especially so-called wealthy ones, should have their funding reduced or withdrawn. The reality suggests otherwise. On average, it costs governments approximately $11,300 to educate a child in a government school, while the cost to governments of educating a non-government school student is $6300.

Not only do non-government-school parents pay taxes for a system they do not use, they also pay fees for their preferred alternative. Commonwealth and state governments provide only 57 per cent of funding to non-government schools, with the Commonwealth’s contribution at approximately 42 per cent and state governments at 15 per cent; the remaining 43 per cent (or about $5 billion) comes from non-government-school tuition fees, charges, donations and other private sources of income.

The current funding formula is needs-based, as the amount each school receives is calculated according to the school’s socio-economic profile. Wealthier non-government schools receive a maximum of 13.7 per cent of what it costs to educate a government school student (what is known as the Average Government School Recurrent Costs or AGSRC), with less affluent schools receiving an amount set at 70 per cent. While independent schools are assessed individually, under the current arrangements the eight state- and territory-based Catholic school systems, on average, receive 57.7 per cent of the AGSRC figure from the Commonwealth.

One of the mantras associated with Kevin Rudd’s education revolution is the need to raise standards, to increase retention rates and to increase the percentage of young people undertaking tertiary study. On all three accounts, non-government schools achieve better results when compared to most government schools. In a paper titled “School Sector Differences in Tertiary Entrance: Improving the Educational Outcomes of Government School Students”, Gary Marks, from the Australian Council for Educational Research, details research in Victoria and New South Wales that concludes that non-government-school students consistently achieve higher tertiary entrance scores than government school students. In relation to retention rates in Years 10 to 12 and based on 2006 figures, the Report on Government Services 2008 states that whereas government schools achieved a figure of 70.8 per cent, the figure for non-government schools was 84.9 per cent.

On measuring performance in the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests two European researchers, Ludger Woessmann and Thomas Fuchs, conclude that “students in schools that are privately operated perform statistically significantly better than students in schools that are publicly operated”. The OECD Education Working Papers No. 13, investigating the impact of school autonomy and choice on student achievement, reaches a similar conclusion. After analysing the results of the 2003 PISA test, the researchers note that those countries with high numbers of non-government schools perform substantially better than those systems dominated by government schools:

the estimated difference in achievement between a system like the Netherlands with three quarters of schools privately operated and systems like Iceland, Norway and Poland with hardly any private schools is equivalent to more than what students on average learn during two years.

The benefits of a robust and well-funded non-government school system are not restricted to the students attending such schools—benefits also flow to government schools. After analysing the impact of choice and competition in education, the authors of the OECD Education Working Papers No. 13 conclude,

In sum, there is strong evidence that the extent to which public schools have to compete with private schools increases student outcomes substantially.” The Canberra-based author of Education Matters, Mark Harrison, after examining the available research, including the work of the US academic Caroline Hoxby analysing the impact of the school choice movement in Milwaukee, draws a similar conclusion: “It appears that competition from private school choice improves the performance of public schools and helps the non-choosers as well as the choosers.

Critics of non-government schools, such as Chris Bonnor and Jane Caro (authors of The Stupid Country) argue that the success of Catholic and independent schools is because such schools serve privileged communities, when measured by socio-economic status, and as a result the students they enrol are advantaged in terms of what they bring to the classroom. Once again, the truth suggests otherwise.

Gary Marks uses the example of Australian Catholic schools outperforming government schools as evidence that socio-economic background is not as strong an influence on student performance as many would like to believe. The two systems have a similar student profile, but Catholic schools achieve stronger outcomes. Marks concludes: “socio-economic background has only a moderate relationship with education outcomes, not the deterministic relationship so often claimed”.

As common sense suggests and as Marks notes, there are other more important factors explaining why non-government schools outperform government schools: “an academic environment conducive to learning, a demanding curriculum, high teacher expectations placed on students, and frequent assessment, monitoring and feedback”. The success of selective government schools in New South Wales, which outperform non-government schools in Year 12 results, provides further evidence that merit and ability, plus a school’s ethos and culture, are stronger determinants of success than social class.

Research by the Australian Council for Educational Research identifying the factors that lead to students achieving strong Year 12 results also downplays the influence of socio-economic background. Dr John Ainley, summarising the ACER’s research, concludes that the most important factor explaining Year 12 success is a student’s previous academic record; the culture of the school attended is second; socio-economic background is third.

The cultural-Left and the Minister for Social Inclusion, Julia Gillard, reject such research. Believing that social class determines educational success or failure conforms to the socialists’ worldview—one where capitalist society is riven with inequality and injustice and doing well has nothing to do with merit, application or ability. Such a self-fulfilling prophecy also justifies spending millions on feel-good programs that aim to overcome disadvantage and implement positive discrimination policies (much of which occurs in Labor-held electorates).

As to why non-government schools are such strong performers, again the research is clear. Compared to government schools, non-government schools have greater autonomy over staffing, budgets, curriculum and school culture and on ways to best reflect the needs and expectations of their communities. Choice and competition between schools are also identified as beneficial. Giving parents the information and wherewithal to choose between schools ensures that schools focus on meeting parents’ demands instead of being self-serving. Choice provides a strong incentive for schools to be responsive to their communities, and local control, where school leaders and teachers make decisions free from centralised, unresponsive and bureaucratic interference, enables innovation and creativity in school management and curriculum.

Ludger Woessmann also argues that, if high standards are to be reached and maintained, governments should properly fund non-government schools. After analysing the characteristics of stronger-performing education systems as measured by international mathematics and science tests, he concludes:

the achievement advantage of privately operated schools over publicly operated schools at the school level is particularly strong in countries with large shares of public funding … public funding may help additional families to choose privately managed schools, increasing the extent of choice and competition in the system.

No matter how unpalatable it may be to the government-school lobby, logic suggests, on the grounds of increased equity and social justice, that governments ensure non-government schools are properly funded in order to enable more parents to choose that alternative.

At the level of rhetoric, both Prime Minister Rudd and the Minister for Education, Julia Gillard, embrace the idea of school choice and the existence of a dual system of education. In practice, as they have shown by forcing all schools to implement the proposed national curriculum by tying its acceptance to funding, introducing a national teacher registration and certification program and centralising data collection related to staffing, budgets and performance, Rudd’s education revolution has a highly bureaucratic and statist approach.

The danger is that the very characteristics that ensure the success of non-government schools (autonomy, flexibility, competition and choice) will be compromised or lost. There is also the fear, given the need for the ALP government to meet the demands of its traditional supporters—such as the Australian Education Union, which regularly contributes money and resources to ALP election campaigns—that the proposed review of school funding will lead to Catholic and independent schools suffering financially and being starved of the resources they need.

Dr Kevin Donnelly is Director of the Melbourne-based Education Standards Institute and the author of Dumbing Down.

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