The proposal by the free market Centre for Independent Studies that high-income families should pay to send their children to a public school would spell the end of public education as we know it. It would likely lead to a two-tiered public system with access to a quality education restricted to those who pay. This could be exacerbated by ever-increasing fees. Fees are also likely to encourage a greater shift to private schools and increase social segregation in schooling.
The introduction of means-tested fees would undermine two fundamental goals of free universal public education: to ensure that all children irrespective of background have equal access to high quality education and have children from different backgrounds learn together so as to promote greater understanding and tolerance between different social groups.
Free public education is necessary to ensure non-discrimination and non-selectivity in access to high quality schooling. It ensures that children cannot be excluded from a quality education for reasons of family background and low income. In a democracy, education outcomes should not depend on family background, wealth and ability to pay.
This was recognised by the Gonski report on school funding which emphatically rejected the proposition that public education should be means-tested:
The government sector is required to provide access to a place for all young people whose parents wish them to attend a government school and has less scope to deny entry or exclude some students than non-government schools. It is important for the future of Australian schooling that the government sector continues to perform the role of a universal provider of high-quality education which is potentially open to all.
This has significant implications for funding and means that, in practice, funding for government schools from fees cannot be significant or compulsory. [p.176]
It said that government schools should “…be universally accessible to all students regardless of parental financial capacity to contribute towards the cost of schooling” [p.176]. This should remain a fundamental feature of public education.
The consequences of means-tested fees would be catastrophic. The nature of public education would be profoundly altered. It would undermine equal access for all to a quality education and compound social inequity in education.
Means-tested fees could be used to exclude those who do not pay, or to provide them with a lower quality of education. Some schools could give priority to enrolling students of parents who are required to pay fees and exclude non-fee paying, that is, poorer, students from the school. This would further stratify government schools into haves and have-nots – with the haves having more fee-paying families and so being better resourced and able to provide a higher quality education.
Within schools, those who have to pay are likely to demand better services because they pay. They could get first call on higher quality courses and teachers while the rest would have to make do with second-rate courses and lower quality teaching. Access to advanced courses could become even more a privilege for the well-off than they are now.
A co-payment for education is the path to greater selectivity in education. The likely result is a two-tiered public education system – a quality education for the well-off and a lesser quality for the less well-off. In such a system, the existing large achievement gaps between rich and poor would widen.
Means-tested fees for public education would also foment divisions between those who pay and those who do not. “Why should we have to pay when they don’t have to pay” would be the call in all government schools. Separating the recipients of free education from those who pay would stigmatise the former. Those not having to pay would be seen as “shirkers” and not deserving.
Setting people in different income brackets against one another is a powerful political tool. Such divisions would make it easier for governments to fiddle with the means-test threshold and make more and more families pay.
There is a very real possibility that once introduced, the scope and level of fees would forever increase. Once the principle of free education is breached for some, it can be breached for others; and, once fees are introduced, they can always be increased. This has become standard practice for other public services.
A low fee has been introduced for many previously free public services and then increased regularly and extended once the initial breach in free provision was made. A small co-payment was first introduced for the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and then regularly increased and also extended to include those on pensions. When university fees were re-introduced they were tightly regulated, but then they have been increased several times and now it is proposed that they be completely deregulated so universities can set their own fees.
Another example is that waste disposal at land fill sites used to be free, but then low fees were introduced and subsequently increased. A co-payment for bulk-billing under Medicare is now imminent which would end universal health care.
The argument that the well-off whose children attend public schools get a free ride on the taxpayer and should pay their own way ignores the fact that they already pay through the progressive taxation system. Fees for public education are a form of double taxation. Public education is paid for through taxation. The well-off contribute more to public education costs through a broadly progressive tax system, even though progressivity has reduced in recent decades.
If the government considers the wealthy are not paying enough for public services such as education, it should increase taxes on the wealthy, not introduce fees which undermine the “public nature” and quality of public education.
The Centre for Independent Studies claims that the same argument applies to those who enrol their children in private schools, the well-off pay double if they choose a private school. However, that is their choice – whether it is for a religious-based education, extra services, gold-plated facilities, or just plain status. Those who want to buy exclusivity and have access to special facilities and services should be expected to pay for those privileges.
The logical extension of the Centre’s case for means-tested fees in government schools is that we have means-tested fees for all kinds of public services. If the well-off should pay for education in government schools, why should they not also pay to use public parks, play grounds, public libraries, public roads, pay the police to attend after their houses are burgled or if they are robbed in the street, pay the fire brigade to attend their property in the event of fire, have their garbage collected, and even to pay the armed services to defend them. The logic of the Centre’s argument is that we have a public library fee, a law and order fee, a road fee, and a national defence fee and so on.
Means-tested fees are also likely to undermine another fundamental goal of public education – to educate children of different backgrounds together in order to build greater social understanding and tolerance in our society.
If well-off families have to pay fees, they may be more willing to join their peers in private schools. Already, we have a high degree of social segregation by income and religion in schooling in Australia. It could increase with means-tested fees in government schools by encouraging well-off families to transfer to private schools with more homogenous student cohorts. This could have far reaching implications for the nature of our society.
Schools segregated by class, religion and race make it difficult for children to develop a practical understanding of people of different backgrounds and break down social prejudice and intolerance.
Historically, public education has played a crucial role in absorbing new waves of immigrants in Australia with different ethnic and religious backgrounds. Public schools have been a melting pot for the children of the first generation of newcomers, providing the place for children to learn and work together across many cultures. It is hard to think of any other social institution that creates such opportunities to bring together numbers of young people from different backgrounds and promote a socially tolerant community.
Diversity in school composition makes possible the interplay of ideas and exchange of views between students from different backgrounds and better equips young people with an understanding of others from different backgrounds. It reduces prejudice and social intolerance and promotes social understanding, co-operation and cohesion. It helps create citizens better prepared to know, to understand, and to work with people of all races and backgrounds. There are extensive research studies showing a positive relationship between attending schools with diverse peers and greater acceptance of cultural differences, declines in racial fears and prejudice, and the development of a socially cohesive, multi-ethnic, democratic society.
Social tolerance and understanding is a core value of a democratic society. People of different backgrounds have to learn to live and work together. Unless children learn together, there can be little hope that they will ever learn to live and work together as adults.
Thus, the proposal for means-tested fees in government schools is a threat to the goals of public education. It would compound inequity in education by restricting access to high quality education. Access to high quality education would become a privilege for those who can pay. It would undermine social cohesion and tolerance by encouraging social segregation of children from different classes, races and religions. In short, means-tested fees would annul the democratic and social purposes of public education.