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Education must be about freedom of choice

By Scott Prasser - posted Thursday, 29 January 2009


Australia is fortunate to have had parallel public and private education systems, established with bipartisan support and within a government regulatory framework, since the 1960s.

So Margaret Wenham's suggestion (The Courier-Mail, January 15) that we resort to a monopolistic, government-only, one-size-fits-all education system is as out of date as those who, in the 1940s, wanted to nationalise the banks or airline system, and limit private housing in favour of government housing commission estates, removing individual choice, demanding uniformity, limiting diversity and perpetuating a belief in government monopoly and that government knows best.

Surely grown-ups do not believe that any more. Haven't we seen enough government mistakes, white-elephant projects, wasted public spending and bureaucratic, centralised and inflexible decision-making to know that it is competition and choice that drives innovation, meets people's needs and promotes diversity?

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The present dual public and non-government education system provides incentives for all education institutions to do better. Most importantly, it gives parents and their children real education choices not provided in many other countries.

This diversity reflects religious affiliation, teaching philosophies, cultural orientation, regional features or emphasis on activities like sport or specialised education needs and the very governance of the schools in terms of parental involvement.

But critics of the non-government education sector never get it. They never understand that choice matters. After all, why - in our increasingly diverse and tolerant society that likes choice in what we buy, how we live, the way we work - be somehow denied choice in relation to schools?

Critics ignore that parents have been voting with their feet and their hard-earned after-tax dollars for years to send their children to the schools they want, to meet their children's needs and to satisfy their standards.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the proportion of students attending government schools in 2007 was 66.4 per cent, down from 70.3 per cent in 1997. From 1997 to 2007 full-time student numbers attending government schools grew by 1.7 per cent, while for non-government schools the increase was 22 per cent.

Even in Canberra, the home of the federal bureaucracy and a well-endowed public school system, parents exercise choice. Nearly 41 per cent of students in the ACT attend non-government schools - the highest proportion in the nation.

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Nor do critics understand the limited nature of public funding of the non-government sector. While the Catholic sector receives 75 per cent of its revenue from government, the fast-growing independent school sector receives only 35 per cent of its total funding from the public coffers.

They conveniently ignore parental contributions in fees and donations and that parents pay for the land and start-up costs of new schools and most of the ongoing capital costs.

All this saves the taxpayers billions of dollars.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on January 19, 2009.



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About the Author

Scott Prasser is Professor of Public Policy and was Executive Director of the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University. Scott has worked previously in senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments and in several universities in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. Recently, Scott co-edited with Associate Professor Nicholas Aroney and J.R. Nethercote the book Restraining Elective Dictatorship: The Upper House Solution? He has just written with Helen Tracey a report entitled Beyond Gonski: Reviewing the Evidence on Quality Schooling.

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