Does the Australian government discriminate against private schools?

On Monday, Andrew Norton made the observation that parents who choose private education for their children are treated less favourably by government than those who choose public schools.

On the federal government’s school funding policy, students at private schools get subsidies at somewhere between 13.7% and 70% of the government school rate, depending on the (presumed) socio-economic status of parents. So parents choosing private schools are financially treated less favourably than parents choosing government schools. Why is this not discrimination?

It’s a reasonable question and it does seem like discrimination.

However, even more interesting is Andrew’s suggestion that the parents most discriminated against by the government are religious parents who, by virtue of their faith, choose to send their children to private schools.

Most private schools are at least nominally religious, and as I noted in my post last week, attitudes towards religion are the only major difference between the school aspirations of parents of children at government and private schools. So those who want their children to receive a religious education are treated less favourably than those who want their kids to have a secular education. If you read the history of public education in Australia this aspect was much more open in the 19th century than today – Protestants, particularly, wanted to diminish the strength of the Catholic Church.

I think current policies on education funding do discriminate against parents who choose private schools, treating them less favourably primarily because of their religion but also more generally for not sharing the ideology of public schooling. The question is whether there is a public policy reason for this discrimination.

 

22 comments ↓

#1 Dion on 03.09.07 at 9:17 pm

Why are we subsidising private schools at all?

There is no discrimination going on here—parents have a choice of either sending their children to a public school or paying for private education instead. If you’re not happy with what’s provided by the state, you should pay for the alternative out of your own pocket.

#2 Amir on 03.09.07 at 9:46 pm

Dion: One issue is that both groups of parents pay taxes. If parents decide to educate their children privately, the portion of that person’s tax confiscated by the government to fund public education (i.e. the education of other people’s children) should be given back to that parent. That is only fair and would be entirely uncontroversial if it was anyone other than the state taking the money.  To give an example: if I was to force you, under threat of imprisonment or legal sanction, to pay me $100 every month to cover the hosting of this website, for example, you wouldn’t be particularly happy about it — even though you might have the option to visit and use it — because you have your own website and would rather invest your money in that.

#3 Dion on 03.09.07 at 10:13 pm

What about parents with no children? For that matter, what about all those roads that you’ll never drive on?

What you appear to be arguing for is an entirely user-pays education system. Personally, I disagree, but that’s an ideological split. (I believe in publicly-funded education, health, emergency services, defence and infrastructure.)

In any case, a public education system presently exists, and in my opinion it should be funded like any other public resource. To then subsidise private schools in fact makes them public schools that are only available to the wealthier members of society.

#4 E.Mariyani on 03.09.07 at 11:58 pm

the portion of that person’s tax confiscated by the government to fund public education

Taxes are not “confiscated.” Nor is taxation is “theft.” Such cannards are best left to the fantasy scenarios devised by relatively wealthy academic philosophers and irrelevant fringe-dwellers from Montana.

#5 Gary on 03.10.07 at 12:53 am

Dion: Nearly 40% of Aussie students attend non-government schools and many of these schools spend less per student than the government schools in their area. Therefore, the idea of private schools as being only for rich parents is not just true. The Catholic system certainly doesn’t target the rich and they represent the majority of private schools in Australia.

The number of kids in private schools is growing each year as more and more parents turn their backs on government education. Therefore the argument for continuing to discriminate in favor of government schools becomes weaker and weaker each year.

Amir: If you look at the figures, I think you will find Muslim private schools do better than most Non Muslim private schools because their funding is based on their SES score.

#6 Hopper on 03.10.07 at 3:50 pm

Tax is morally wrong. The government decides for itself how much of your money it will take from you, forcefully seizes it and then spends it on what it thinks is best without ever asking you. Under a progressive tax system, you end up with people being punished for working hard, putting in more hours or being smarter and earning more because the more you earn, the more you have to pay.

#7 Amir on 03.10.07 at 5:26 pm

In any case, a public education system presently exists, and in my opinion it should be funded like any other public resource. To then subsidise private schools in fact makes them public schools that are only available to the wealthier members of society.

I don’t think it’s right to make a distinction between ’subsidies’ provided to private institutions and ’subsidies’ provided to government institutions. To the extent that government should be funding anything, it should be funding outcomes rather than specific methods or institutions of delivering those outcomes. Whether a child is educated in a private institution or a public institution should be immaterial. It seems, however, that many objections to the funding of private schools are ideological and based on the, largely incorrect, assumption that private schools serve only a rich elite. (Of course, some of the opposing arguments are likewise ideologically driven)

Nowadays, private schools are very much a mainstream alternative for parents of all SES backgrounds. Islamic schools, for example, certainly dont target the rich and elite of the Muslim community; but, to varying degrees, seem to have many parents from working class or lower middle class backgrounds. As such, I do wonder whether a funding system that seems to favour government schools is fair to the increasing number of parents who are, for various reasons, leaving or passing over the public system.

#8 Trav on 03.10.07 at 9:06 pm

Interesting link. I just came from the LP forums where we are discussing the issue of education funding.

We have short memories. Government education is a new invention and wasn’t the norm even in the UK until the late 19th century. Prior to that all education was private.

Private/public education is a moral issue. It comes down to one question and that is who knows best what is good for a child? The state or the parent? If you believe that some pencil pushers in government know best then you should back the public system but if you believe parents know best and should be able to make a choice then you have to support private education because that is the only system that guarantees parental freedom to choose how their kids are brought up and what they are taught.

#9 NN on 03.10.07 at 9:11 pm

What a load of BS this is! Private religious education is an enemy of tolerance and integration. How can we get along if we are all being taught different things? I oppose ALL funding of private schools. How can we justify it when our public schools are still underfunded!

#10 Dion on 03.10.07 at 9:31 pm

If you believe that some pencil pushers in government know best then you should back the public system but if you believe parents know best and should be able to make a choice then you have to support private education because that is the only system that guarantees parental freedom to choose how their kids are brought up and what they are taught.

Utter strawman. The freedom of which school to send your child to extends beyond the private system because the choice includes a publicly funded alternative for those who don’t wish to send their children to any of the private schools for whatever reason.

#11 Baybers on 03.10.07 at 9:43 pm

NN, I agree with you completely. We must all be taught the same thing. It must of course be Sharia, Fiqh, Quranic exegsis and Islamic History. If only other people thought I like me, there would be no conflict and if they resembled me then I would also not be disgusted by humanity when I walked down the street. So you must include dress and sensibilities along with curriculum.

I also think that competitive sport where people barrack for different teams is divisive, it is also cruel because one team always has to lose. I say there should only ever be one team one sports club and we should call it Australia, that way it would always win, it would never lose and we would always be happy.

I agree that there should be no private schools, no private unis, no private newspapers. In-fact we could have one newspaper and if we called it “Truth” then what we wrote in it would be true.

I also think that you are letting these nasty fundies off too lightly, By eliminating private religious schools how would you know that they wouldn’t bring their perfidy into govt schools? I think you would need a world class system of surveillance of doctrine, perhaps by a ministry of truth.

#12 E.Mariyani on 03.11.07 at 8:31 pm

Hopper said “Tax is morally wrong.”

Yes, yes. The only thing worst is road rules. Road rules are a pernicious infringement on my fundamental inalienable freedoms by an over-reaching nanny-state, which, on tasting the sweet nectar of my liberties, is inexorably drawn towards its totalitarian anti-apotheosis.

O, Ayn Rand, if only you merely a barking mad hack of a faux-philosopher and not also raving atheist…

:|

#13 Club Troppo » Missing Link on 03.12.07 at 12:34 pm

[...] At the Australian Muslim groupblog Austrolabe, Amir picks up on an earlier post on Andrew Norton’s blog about whether private schools are being discriminated against and starts an interesting debate about the issues raised from a Muslim perspective. The resulting comments thread is worth reading as Amir approaches this from a libertarian-leaning perspective, demonstrating the potential political synergies between one reading of libertarianism and multiculturalism, and encounters opposition from at least one left-leaning commenter who takes the view that all education should be public and secular. [...]

#14 Andrew Reynolds on 03.12.07 at 6:15 pm

If the goal is universal, quality, schooling does this mean the government needs to own all, or even any, schools?
To me at least what the public purse should be doing is to be funding the children and allowing the parents, who are closest to the children, to make the bulk of the educational decisions on their behalf. From a strictly utilitarian point of view education funding is there to try to ensure that children grow up to be responsible, productive members of society. From a self-actualisation point of view, on the child’s part, this would then include the ability to fulfil their own potential.
If we accept the position that the parent(s) know(s) the child best, and has their interests at heart, then a straight voucher system becomes, IMHO, the best one, with full home schooling allowed.
Unfortunately, in some cases children do not grow up in homes with parents who are capable of understanding their needs and acting on them. If this was adults making poor decisions on their own behalf and not affecting others I would look to leave the situation alone, but child abuse of this, or any, type is properly the function of a government; so the types of schooling available under this system would need to be limited in some way.
Other than that, allowing many differing schools should allow natural competition to find the best way to educate each child. A non-competitive, purely public system, as seemingly envisaged by NN and perhaps Dion, is to me the worst of all possible worlds – short of no formal education at all.

#15 Dion on 03.13.07 at 12:21 am

A non-competitive, purely public system, as seemingly envisaged by NN and perhaps Dion, is to me the worst of all possible worlds – short of no formal education at all.

Just to be clear, I’m not arguing for an end to private education but rather an end to subsidies for private schools.

#16 Amir on 03.13.07 at 7:31 am

Dion, would you support a universal voucher scheme as described by Andrew? Each parent would be issued with a voucher which they could then use to pay fees for any school of their choosing, whether private or public.

#17 Andrew Reynolds on 03.13.07 at 10:42 am

Thanks for the clarification, Dion – I thought that may be the case, but I could not be sure. Do you have an answer to Amir’s question?

#18 Dion on 03.13.07 at 11:58 am

Would the voucher cover the entirety of school fees for the student?

If it would, then the problem I see is that niche schools would cost more per student, and so you’ll get the situation of (say) a child attending a fundamentalist Christian school receiving greater funding than a child in a mainstream private school.

If, on the other hand, the voucher covered a flat amount, that seems to me to be another way of doing what we’re already doing.

#19 Amir on 03.13.07 at 2:46 pm

It would be a flat amount. For example, $3,000 per child. The difference with the current system is that, using this figure, the public school gets the $3,000 but the private school might get only $420.

#20 Dion on 03.13.07 at 3:09 pm

Yes, in which case I return to my original stance: private schools should be receiving no money, not more, from the government.

#21 Andrew Reynolds on 03.13.07 at 7:12 pm

Amir,
Just for an indication of the quantum of current school funding – in WA the amount spent per child on the education system as a whole is more than $12,000. This is more than the annual fees for the top private schools here. On this (admittedly simplistic) basis if the Department of Education was simply closed down and a voucher system implemented, head teachers of all the current government schools would have a revenue budget much the same as that for the top private schools – provided they could persuade the parents to keep their kids there.
All the current government schools could then be privatised and perhaps run as mutuals, for example, with the voting “shareholders” being the parents of the kids at the school, as the voucher-holders.

If all govenment schools were privatised on this basis, Dion, would that work and if not, why not?

#22 Lachlan on 03.20.07 at 10:02 pm

im studying this for debating, i hope u all know that

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