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Let’s close public schools

I’ve been looking at Australia’s education performance on international tests, listening to the objections to Gonski funding reforms, reading what Kevin Donnelly has to say, recalling John Howard’s concerns about values in government schools, following Christopher Pyne’s announcements and reflecting on Joe Hockey’s concerns about the state of our national finances. Based on all of this there seems to  be only one way forward: the government should get out of the education business and close all public schools.

Surely this serves the national interest. In non government schools, students achieve better results and develop values and character in keeping with society’s expectations. It would also save the nation billions of dollars a year because, as we often reminded, non government schools save the taxpayer money. More students, more savings. It would also be consistent with much of our education policy at federal and state level which seems to be about not much more than making public schools more like their independent and faith based counterparts.

So it’s a win all round. Students get a better education and moral upbringing and the government saves a fortune.

Well, there might be a few issues but nothing the free market couldn’t sort out, surely. First one would be the flight of families from schools in which their children now have to mix with the general population. Maybe the government could help them out, somehow. Perhaps a series of select entry government funded schools for the best and brightest.

I guess another issue might be how these schools could afford to educate their new students given their educational needs. After all, the non government sector would have just picked up 80% of the poorest students in Australia and somewhere around the same number of indigenous and disabled students. Maybe the government could look again at ongoing funding of those Gonski reforms, seems like there might be a good argument for funding students based on need after all.

And the parents who can’t afford to pay for textbooks, uniforms, excursions and other supplies (let alone school fees)? Maybe they take out loans or perhaps their children just can’t attend school at all. Damned tricky this inclusiveness business.

Of course it’s not going to happen. Too much at stake. It is absolutely in the interests of the non government school sector to have a public education system which can survive but not thrive. It allows someone else to look after the students they don’t want. Parents can keep their children safe from the great unwashed and they can also  feel good about making sacrifices and doing something ‘better’ for their children than sending them to the local school . Where academic and sporting talent pops up in the public sector it can be lured across with a scholarship or a better ‘offer’ at the top end of primary school.

That’s the most unkind characterisation of non government schools, I know. They are simply in the business of educating children, as we all are. But not all children, by choice. What all students should be entitled to is something approaching equality of opportunity (although maybe it’s not a good time in Australia to be talking about entitlement, particularly for the less well off).

Of course this proposition wouldn’t suit politicians either. The current arrangements allow them to claim that they have a genuine commitment to public education. Deep down I doubt most do, but it’s important for their credibility and allows them to indulge in the ‘choice’ agenda. Where do their children attend school?

Quite simply, students in public schools don’t have equality of opportunity at the moment because we’ve had a long, slow shifting of the funding scales in favour of non government schools. It’s out of balance and if it doesn’t change Australia will suffer the long term economic and social consequences. But long term thinking is often too difficult for governments.

Whenever education funding reform is discussed the advocates of ‘choice’ are very vocal about the disaster that would befall us if non government schools closed their doors. Perhaps it’s worth considering what would happen if the opposite occurred. 

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