Want to save the taxpayer $11 billion a year? De-fund the ‘private’ school system.
Malcolm Turnbull is digging around in the back of the couch looking for loose change tax savings while the Australian taxpayer pours billions into our privately run education system. If things are really that dire, perhaps it’s time to seriously contemplate the Sacred Cow (or is it Elephant?) standing in the middle of the room.
In 1963 (and for the century before that), the Australian taxpayer contributed nothing to private education. This was very intentional choice. We had decided that the taxpayer funded, church run system we had before that was an inequitable, rolling disaster which educated only the rich and everyone else be buggered.
We thought that probably wasn’t a solid foundation for new egalitarian nation, so we purposefully decided to wrest control from the various churches and instead fund a high quality, public, secular, free education available to everybody. You could opt out but that was a choice you made, and paid for, yourself.
Some people did opt out. If you were Catholic (and listened to the Pope’s edicts on education) you sent your kids to a Catholic school. You paid the freight yourself and hoped for generous donations from nuns who worked for room and board, the Church and congregations. And if you were filthy rich you might also get your chequebook out and pony up to the high-end (usually protestant) equivalent. But neither of you would be getting a penny from the taxpayer to assist you with your choice.
A very similar system operates today in the US, UK, New Zealand and well, pretty much everywhere else. It is also the system we use for most other public services. If I choose not to use public transport, I don’t get to have the taxpayer buy me a Porsche. If I choose not to rely on the police for security, I don’t get to bill the taxpayer for a security guard. And if I prefer not to use a public pool, I don’t get help to build my own.
But now in Australia things are very different. Because of our designed-to-fail Federal-State funding system and constant pork-barreling by both sides of politics, the taxpayer has been steadily tipping more and more into the ‘private’ education sector.
Now the taxpayer pumps an eye-popping $11 billion a year into schools run by private entities (about 10 times what we spend running the ABC and about the same as we spend on unemployment and sickness benefits). And that does not count the charitable tax breaks and exemptions most of them also enjoy.
Besides operating expenses, that money is splurged on private assets like swimming pools, libraries, computer labs and sports fields, the likes of which most public schools can only dream about. And sometimes, as with the recent case of the Malek Fahd Islamic School, apparently not spent on education at all.
But there is something even worse than spending $11 billion a year buying other people swimming pools and hypoxic simulated altitude-training environments (that you’re not allowed to use). And that is doing it while delivering a worse result than when you didn’t spend any money.
Consistent testing tells us a modern Australian student is performing at a level about a quarter of a year behind their 1964 peer. And if that’s not bad enough, that same student is now more than two years behind the highest performing school systems in the world. All Australian schools performed terribly in the latest round of international comparative tests. But our best private schools did even worse than everybody else. The rest of the world has rushed forward while we have drifted backwards.
Not only have taxpayers gained nothing for their extraordinary generosity, they have ended up with a system in deep trouble. But we knew that would happen. It’s one of the reasons we stopped doing it the first time around.
Defunding the private education sector is not something you could do next Tuesday afternoon, but it is something that could be easily implemented with appropriate notice.
It would not destroy the religious education sector and it would not overwhelm the public sector. But it would slowly reverse the exodus of easy-to-teach kids, cost less, restore equity and likely improve everybody’s results. How do I know? Well, we’ve been there, done that and bought the T-Shirt, once already.
Also published in The Courier Mail
Photo by Thomas Hawk