Government advisor: Faith-based schools threaten society

The Age reports today:

THE rapid growth of faith-based schools under the previous federal government has threatened the social cohesion of the nation, according to Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s most senior education adviser.

The frank comments of Professor Barry McGaw, appointed this month to be the new head of the National Curriculum Board, contrast with the Howard government’s celebration of the proliferation of small independent schools, encouraged by generous public funding.

“These people often form a narrowly focused school that is aimed at cementing the faith it’s based on … If we continue as we are, I think we’ll just become more and more isolated sub-groups in our community,” Professor McGaw told The Age.

Professor McGaw’s comments are, of course, absurd. Our community is diverse and that diversity extends quite naturally to how people believe their children should be educated. The very fact that so many parents are opting out of the government-controlled education system in favour of private schools — secular or religious — demonstrates this diversity.

The real threat to social cohesion comes not from parents exercising their parental choice but from governments that seek to force these parents to conform with the state’s ideas about how and what their children should be taught. On this point, Andrew Norton, responding to McCaw’s comments today, writes the following:

As John Locke convincingly argued more than three hundred years ago, not only is the project of creating common belief futile, it creates the conflict it is intended to resolve. And this is as true now as it was in the seventeenth century, except now the religious believers are quietly getting on with their lives while the public school lobby stirs up conflict by attacking them. The ’social cohesion’ argument is a euphemism for intolerance.

Rather than limit the range of educational options available to children, we should welcome them: just as competition in every other market leads to a better range and quality of products, so will competition between education providers lead to better outcomes for students. For this reason, approaches such as school vouchers make a great deal of sense. As Milton Friedman, who invented the idea of ’school vouchers’, explained:

Government, preferably local governmental units, would give each child, through his parents, a specified sum to be used solely in paying for his general education; the parents would be free to spend this sum at a school of their own choice, provided it met certain minimum standards laid down by the appropriate governmental unit. Such schools would be conducted under a variety of auspices: by private enterprises operated for profit, nonprofit institutions established by private endowment, religious bodies, and some even by governmental units….[Vouchers] would bring a healthy increase in the variety of educational institutions available and in competition among them. Private initiative and enterprise would quicken the pace of progress in this area as it has in so many others. Government would serve its proper function of improving the operation of the invisible hand without substituting the dead hand of bureaucracy.