Monday, September 6, 2004

Public education

My frustration with election coverage reduced to “two sandwiches and two milkshakes” tax cuts and interest rates, coupled with the recent interest in Shane Maloney’s 2001 speech to Scotch College students has got me thinking about public education.

While education and health remain key issues in any election, the acceptable range of debate on the two topics has diverged.

While we basically now accept that (1) the public health care system is overloaded and (2) it’s a legitimate government strategy to encourage those who can afford to pay for health insurance to do so, it would be politically foolhardy to suggest that those who can afford to pay for their children’s education should be given similar tax incentives.

Obviously, education has an effect on social mobility and future earnings in a way health care does not. Further, public education clearly has a role in socialisation. It seems (at least on first glance) that private faith-based schools are less likely to place children in an environment where they encounter practitioners of other religions. This would seem a bad thing for tolerance. Similarly, it would seem intuitively a bad thing in terms of curbing sexist attitudes if adolescent males are quarantined from the rest of society in single-sex high schools (however superficially appealing the idea of quarantining males aged 13 – 18 might be).

So, public funding of private education is bad, right? It inherently diverts money from public education – robbing the poor to teach the rich?

Well, not necessarily, as: (1) withdrawing such funding entirely could overburden the public system; and (2) the bulk of government subsidies to the private sector are not going to the Scotch Colleges.

The minimum level of funding given per student to a private school by the Federal Government is 13.7% of the cost of providing education to a state school student (Average Government School Recurrent Cost – AGSRC). The maximum is 70%. The rate for a school is determined by reference the government’s Socio Economic Status (SES) index measure of a community’s ability to support a school.

The numerous private Catholic schools are the most interesting interesting case. Generally, they offer the lowest-fee form of private education, and under a bloc deal with the Federal Government get a flat rate of 56.2% of AGSCR regardless of SES assessment. According to the Senate Report on School funding, such schools accounted for 20% of total school enrolments in 2003, and two-thirds of enrolments in the non-government sector.

What would happen if all government funding were removed?

While Scotch College might be able to absorb the loss of 13.7% AGSCR per student in fee rises, lower-fee Catholic schools might well shut up shop if the alternative were a 78% fee increase.

The result would be an increase in the cost to taxpayers of education. In effect, these lower-fee schools are stretching the community education dollar by making 1.8 education places in the total system for each one student who leaves public education for a Catholic school. If all their students migrated back suddenly to the public sector there would simply not be enough funding to accommodate them and maintain present standards within present budgets.

In exactly the same way as health care, the public education budget has come to rely on private fee-paying.

Thus, anyone who is politically serious about the laudable democratic aim of having all children in high-quality public education is going to have some trouble coming up with the money when even the party of (allegedly) social investment is flat out flogging a tax cut.

Presently, some public funding of private schools is inevitable. The debate should really be about the terms on which that is going to occur and whether the Howard government has moved funding towards the top-end private schools at the expense of other schools.

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