Why are we throwing money at people who choose not to use Public Education?

By September 25, 2018Education

The Government has just decided to throw another 4.6 billion taxpayer dollars at a sector which already sucks up $12 billion a year of Australia’s education funding.  On equity grounds alone, the increase for ‘private’ and not public schools is outrageous.  But it highlights an even more egregious fact.  Almost 90% of Australian households are being asked to subsidise the private choices of the other 10%.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, of every 100 Australian households, 33 will have children under 15 or dependent students aged 15-24.  In 21 of those households the school age children will be attending public schools, 7 will be attending Catholic schools and 5 will be attending independent schools (such as Protestant and Islamic schools).

Together the 12 households that have chosen not to use the education system funded by all taxpayers are asking the other 88 households to pay for their choice.  They argue that in choosing not to use a public service they are saving the community money and so they should be compensated.  But that is the equivalent of an avid reader suggesting he is saving the local library by buying his own books and then expecting his collection to be paid for by the taxpayer.  Or the chap installing a pool in his backyard to be expecting it be paid for by the government because he is taking load off the public pool.

The reality is that our voracious reader or our keen swimmer may be choosing to spend money on books and pools for any number of reasons including convenience, variety and perhaps just because they don’t like sharing.  And they are perfectly free to make those choices for those reasons.  But they don’t get to ask the rest of us to subsidise those preferences.

Likewise those 12 families are choosing not to avail themselves of the public education system for a multitude of reasons.  Maybe they like religion mixed with their education.  Maybe they want a single sex education.  Or maybe its just that they think they can get a better education than the government is offering.  Whatever is driving their choice, they should be free to make that choice.  But they should not be given taxpayer funds for electing not to use a public service, any more than our book lover or water enthusiast should be given tax dollars to build and maintain their private library and private pool.

When the governments of Australia collectively decided that education was a public service that should be free, secular and accessible to all in the late 19th century, the Catholic church opted out and declared that it would fund an alternative.  It did this knowing that to do so would cut it off from taxpayer funds. But such was its religious conviction that children of Catholics should be educated by Catholics, that this was the price it was prepared to pay.

The Church stuck to this ideal for the better part of a century, but the decline in availability of low cost teaching labor provided by religious orders and the increasing cost of providing more complex education meant they were very much the paupers’ option by the mid-1960s.  Some strong-arm tactics by the Catholic church in Goulburn resulted in the first dribble of public money.  In the half century since, those drips have turned into a torrent and not just to Catholic schools.  In many cases, including in Goulburn, Catholic schools now receive as much or even more public money than their so called ‘public’ neighours.  And still they want more.  And they tell their customers how to vote to ensure they get more.

There is nothing wrong with parents choosing not to use a public service. But that doesn’t mean the taxpayer should pay for their choice any more than the government should pay for my subscription because I pay for Foxtel rather than watch the ABC.

Australians don’t want our governments throwing our money at people who opt-out of our public services.  We want every precious education tax dollar focused on improving the skills of every single child in this country. Yes, they can choose not to be educated by the State.  But if they do so, they also forgo access to the State’s money.  The sooner we shut down the notion of privatised delivery of government funded education the sooner we can begin to claw our way back to the top of the list of the world’s best education systems.

Join the discussion 11 Comments

  • Frances says:

    I agree with you. However, should the govt. not provide funding for private and independent schools, then more than likely those students would transfer to the public system, over-crowding it and forcing new public schools to be built.

  • David Gillespie says:

    Possibly – although before we started funding ‘private’ schools in 1964, 25% of schools were still non-government (20% Catholic and 5% the rest) … but even if they all came, the Public system would have at least an additional $13b a year with which to cope with the influx (which is more than sufficient). There is also another alternative, just remove the right for schools accepting government funds to charge fees (which is what they do in most other OECD countries) – then they can continue to operate as they do today accepting the same or more government money per student, just without the gravy of parent fees.

  • Steven collins says:

    Absolutely nailed it David. Brilliant piece of research and opinion. I began wondering whether your analogy of the reader and swimmer stacked up as neither of these activities are compulsory. Then I realised that Australians can choose to home school, meaning that traditional schooling per se can’t be compulsory.
    I think your second point about banning parental fees is one that deserves a great deal more public consideration, comment, debate and evaluation. On the surface, it seems like the perfect solution. But there again, how do we monitor ‘private donations’. Presumably, they would also have to be made illegal ?
    Thanks for the read.

  • David Zyngier says:

    David many thanks for your advocacy. Your readers should please consider joining the Public Education Network on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

  • Laura Daniel says:

    I agree totally with the sentiments expressed, but the question is silly. Why? They are buying votes, obviously.

  • Andy Stewart says:

    Its time for public school parents to use the absurd school funding situation as a key driver in their voting decisions. But that’s not easy, I don’t see any major party as being brave enough to stand up to the loud, well-organised and well-funded lobby groups used by the religious and private school sectors.
    If a candidate stood up and said they are going to cut funding to non-public schools and redirect it to public schools they would instantly be guaranteed my vote. I suspect a lot of other public school parents feel the same way.

  • Michael Gersch says:

    The Finnish model where every child’s education is generously funded, and only a few categories of non government schools are permitted, such as Steiner Schools or religious schools. However, the non government schools must comply with these rules- they must not charge fees, and they must accept all applicants. My children attend a Steiner school, which I believe has a much healthier position on technology than the state schools which mandate mobile devices at an early age. However I think, as you do David, that its disgracefully inequitable that the children at the local primary school receive less government assistance than the children at the Steiner school.

  • Stjepan says:

    I came to this discussion after reading Teen Brain where I learned many important lessons. It was also a pleasure to read. I wanted to find more good work from David.
    I am therefore stunned with the mathematics of the arguments above. I agree that at least in my times (25 yrs ago) there was no advantage in the largest private school system, Catholic. But Catholic schools save taxpayers money, and this is why whatever Government is in power they receive support. Why?

    1. Catholic schools spend slightly less per student, not very significant but
    2. Parents contribute significantly to this smaller sum. In comparison with government schools, taxpayer pays much less per student in the Catholic system. Taxpayer wins.

    The same is not true for very expensive private schools, e.g. Canberra Grammar. But there the students do get some advantage:
    1. These rich schools pay their teachers more and attract the best teachers.
    2. The students get a feeling that they are the elite. I don’t think I would want this for my children, but i observed many times, over many years, that this helps such people obtain desirable positions later in life. The taxpayer loses.

  • James says:

    David, I’ve loved reading your articles and listening to you on ABC Conversations but in this article I think you need more facts. If anything it’s the parents of private school children who are subsidising the public schools, not the other way round. See for example the snapshot of government funding outlined in the report below which shows that the average total government recurrent funding per student in a government school in 2016-17 was $17,530 compared to $9,350 for independent schools. If every independent school was closed and their students sent to government schools instead, the total cost to the taxpayer would be an extra $4.5 billion dollars per annum. It’s therefore greatly in the government’s financial interest to maintain private schools and continue to support them so that they remain financially viable.

  • David Gillespie says:

    James, every taxpayer, yes even the majority who don’t currently have kids in school, ‘subsidises’ the public school system. That is the nature of a Public Good. I subsidise Freeways in Perth, even though I choose not to use them (because I live in Brisbane). I also subsidise public libraries but don’t use them, but I don’t get a refund because of my choice. That is the point of taxation. The community decides something is of value (in this case an educated populace) and decides to dedicate taxpayer resources towards providing it. You can opt out of it but that is your choice. It doesn’t entitle you to a tax refund.

    If all private school children were to move to public schools (which wont happen because there are always a significant number who for faith or other reasons will simply not tolerate free public education, no matter what the cost) it would probably not save the government money. The non-government sector currently educates the cheapeast to educate kids almost exclusively and when it does venture into the harder to educate kids, it costs the taxpayer more than if the government schools did it. This graph of government funding broken down by Income Level of the parents and sector, makes that abundantly clear (1,000 is the median income level)

    Govt funding by ICSEA and Sector

    The numbers relied on by that private school lobby group’s report are the productivity commission figures. They build in a substantial cost on the government school side of the equation (depreciation of buildings) which is not present on the non-government side and they are skewed by a significant bias towards government schools providing the vast majority of expensive remote and high needs education.

  • David Perry says:

    I assume you mean that it WOULD save the government money if they shifted to the public sector. You’re exactly right about the private schools taking the “cheaper” to teach kids.

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