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.