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School vouchers: choice and ‘empowerment’

By Corin McCarthy - posted Wednesday, 19 April 2006

A real question facing both major parties is (or should be) whether the distinction between public versus private schooling is the real divide in education?

Labor MP Craig Emerson has suggested the distinction between public and private schools funding should be abandoned and there should be an emphasis on competition and parental choice between all schools.

Emerson adds - to protect the most vulnerable students - those with high needs, such as learning difficulties, should attract more funding. He says: “Then government and private schools would find them attractive and would want more of them, rather than those kids being concentrated in poor government schools as at present.”


Emerson is describing what is known as a “voucher”. The voucher is a sum of money that can increase or decrease in size according to the socio-economic background of the parents or the child’s needs.

The World Bank has taken a broadly positive view of school vouchers, claiming in a report: “The typical voucher system, which is one in which governments subsidise the ‘schools of choice’ in strict proportion to enrolment, appears to be contributing to the growth in quantity and quality of schooling”. It concluded this was based on evidence from 20 countries representing many backgrounds.

There are four compelling principle objectives in a vouchers-based education system.

First, it empowers parents, as consumers of education, rather than the current system that empowers in the main the suppliers of education - the state and teachers unions.

Second, people want to shape their own destinies, choose the values they favour, and this promotes enthusiasm, participation and interest among parents in their children’s future.

Third, it promotes competition for resources, both between state and private, as well as between individual schools in a given educational zone.


Fourth, it provides the widest possible access to private schools, following recent, increasingly positive sentiment towards them among parents.

Former US Secretary of Education William Bennett says of vouchers: “Of all the problems of public schools, very few of them remain untouched by choice … With choice you would have accountability, because people would leave bad schools.”

In general in Western countries vouchers have been given to less well-off families but not used across the board.

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About the Author

Corin McCarthy was an adviser in opposition and government to Craig Emerson MP. He also advised Labor’s 2007 election campaign on small business issues. He has written widely on these issues in The Australian and On Line Opinion. He currently works as a lawyer in London advising on major infrastructure projects. These views are his own.

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