This article is a summary of a new Education Policy Brief. The full Brief can be downloaded below.
The proposal of Tom Greenwell and Chris Bonnor to fully fund private schools. subject to them not charging fees and not enrolling students on the basis of ability, abrogates key long standing principles of public education, namely, that public schools are secular and do not discriminate on the basis of student background. The proposal explicitly permits private schools to promulgate their religious beliefs and values and to discriminate against students and teachers who do not share these beliefs. This is anathema to the founding principles of public education. Public schools must remain secular and take all comers, whatever their background, to provide access to education for all and to promote understanding and tolerance between different social groups.
Nor would it eliminate social segregation between schools as Greenwell and Bonnor claim. Government funding of private schools that charge fees and restrict entry is not the only cause of social segregation between schools. A basic cause is the economic and geographical segregation of households. Fully funding private schools will not eliminate the extensive social segregation between schools in the western and eastern suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne or between remote regions and prestigious suburbs of metropolitan cities.
Greenwell and Bonnor state that families should not have to pay fees to ensure their child’s education reflects their values and preferences. This represents capitulation to private school lobby groups. Families pay fees to access the special ethos and character of private schools, whether it be religious education, social status or an “old school tie” network. The role of government funding for private schools is not to subsidise the costs of such choices. It should only support the learning needs of students in under-resourced schools. Parents, not taxpayers, must bear the costs of choosing a “special ethos”.
Greenwell and Bonnor argue that Australia must follow the models of other countries that fully fund private schools; Belgium, Canada, Netherlands, New Zealand and Scotland. However, the evidence on average student results, equity and segregation is far from compelling. Apart from Canada, these countries have not performed significantly better than Australia in terms of average outcomes or equity in outcomes. Some have performed worse than Australia on several measure.
Closer investigation of Canada’s performance also shows that it is not a model for fully funding private schools. Only three of Canada’s 10 provinces – Alberta, Ontario and Saskatchewan – fully fund Catholic schools and they do not systematically outperform some other provinces on average outcomes or equity. Alberta and Ontario are high performing systems but Quebec has similar or better results on some measures while Saskatchewan is one of the lower performing provinces.
Other factors are the more likely explanation of Canada’s apparent success. The socio-economic status of all students and those in the lowest quartile is higher than in other countries that fully fund private schools and in Australia. Similarly, these measures are higher in Alberta and Ontario than other provinces.
Funding per student, adjusted for inflation, in public schools has increased by much more in Canada compared to Australia between 2001-02 and 2016-17 – 37% compared to only 12%. Funding in Alberta and Ontario has also increased by much more than in Australia.
Canada also appears to be manipulating its PISA results. It has a much higher exclusion rate from the tests than other countries that fully fund private schools and then Australia. It also has the lowest coverage of eligible students in the OECD.
There is an alternative way forward to increase equity in education. It is to introduce a Gonski Plus funding model. It would involve re-estimation of the base Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) and increased loadings for various categories of disadvantaged students and schools. Government funding for private schools would only be provided to fill the gap between private income and a revised base SRS. It would reduce social segregation between schools because it would end the over-funding of private schools and force them to increase fees which would likely lead to a greater number of advantaged students being enrolled in public schools.