In an article in The Age (20/6/11) former Victorian education minister Lyn Kosky drew attention to the continuing project of undermining our state education system. Kosky was spurred to write by two similar proposals, one by Tim Hawkes, principal of The King's School, and the other by Brian Caldwell, a former Dean of Education at the University of Melbourne. The essence of these proposals was that parents with high incomes who chose to send their children to state schools are an untapped source of funding. Hawkes suggested this should be for poorer state schools; Caldwell suggested it should be for capital spending in the schools their children attended.
I agree with Kosky's concern. However, it seems to me that in making her argument she reinforced two common characterisations of state education that are misleading.
The first is that state education is free, which arises from the long-held ideal of state education being secular, compulsory and free. It is reiterated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the child, but education has never been free. Public education is paid for by all of us through our taxes and managed by our government on our behalf. The argument is not about whether it should be free or not, but whether it should be paid for individually or collectively.
Argument about the relative merits of individual or collective responsibility is more honest because it makes the values of the protagonists easier to see. I believe that school education should be subject to the user-pays principle. We all benefit in a multitude of ways from an educated population whether we have children or not, and we should all pay for it.
The second misconception is that schools are for parents, who are often spoken of as the users or consumers. Schools are for children and young people, all of whom deserve an equal chance. Choosing a school for your child is not the same type of decision as choosing a mechanic for your car. Children are not possessions. They have rights in their own regard, irrespective of who their parents are, and the protection of these rights is the responsibility of the state.
These misconceptions underlie the proposals by Tim Hawkes and Brian Caldwell, to which Kosky refers, that high-income parents of children in state schools should contribute more money to their school just as parents of children in private schools do. Such a move would only serve to magnify inequality because schools in wealthy areas would be able to raise a great deal more than those in poor areas. This already occurs through local fund-raising. High-income parents already contribute more through their taxes, but their contribution is for the benefit of all children.
Those who push this argument will not be able to answer Kosky's question about the where the public interest lies in dismantling our universal state education system, because destruction of a public good is never in the public interest. The only strategy is to discredit the concept of a public good, which in the wrangling over state education is often disguised as the pursuit of excellence.
The strategy is succeeding. Research by Richard Teese and Stephen Lamb at the University of Melbourne shows that the current system of funding has tended to widen the achievement gap between schools rather than diminish it. This should be a matter of concern to the Australian Social Inclusion Board.
I am not opposed to non-state schools receiving state funding and I think that the argument between public and private education is an ideological distraction that diverts attention from the task of ensuring that all young people in Australia, regardless of the means of their parents, are provided with a high quality education. It seems to me there is a simple principle that should inform our thinking about the distribution of funding: if the amount that private schools spend per student is what is needed to achieve a proper education, then that is what should be spent on all students. If it is more than is needed, this excess should be redirected to where it is needed, as long as the assessment of need accounts for local or individual disadvantage.
In the shallow and anxious discussions that spring up from time to time about Australian values we are keen to assert our commitment to fairness (as if this is uniquely Australian), but evidence such as this shows that we are steadily becoming less fair. The idea that it's quite reasonable for children from poor areas or poor families to have less spent on their education is immoral. Universal state education is one of the means by which we can demonstrate our commitment to fairness.
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