It’s fairness not envy

Graham Young over on Ambit Gambit has a post about Labor’s education policy release that trots out the usual kneejerk conservative slur against Labor: Latham’s policy is based on “envy”. But unlike most such defences of existing privilege, Graham actually argues his case.

Update – Chris Sheil also posts on Labor’s education policy, while John Quiggin launches a pre-emptive strike on health policy in advance of Labor’s detailed policy release. Both are well worth reading.

(initial post (cont.) Graham Young argues:

For years private schools have been funded on the basis of more or less self-reported need. This was obviously open to manipulation. A couple of years ago the federal government changed this, calculating need on the basis of the income profiles of families sending their children to private schools. Without using the actual tax returns of families they estimated incomes on the basis of the socio-demographic of the areas from which they drew students. (This can be done fairly precisely on the basis of the 200 or so houses making up a census collector district).

As a result of this something was crystallised. Many of the people sending their children to the wealthier private schools were actually poorer than many of those sending their children to the needier private schools, and judged on this basis some of the poorer schools were over-paid and the richer schools under-paid.

Leaving aside the potential for gross inaccuracy and rorting inherent in a formula that attempts to guess the wealth of parents based on census districts, surely we first need to ask a fundamental question. What are we trying to achieve with government funding of schools (whether it’s federal aid to private or government schools)? The answer to that question largely determines the appropriate funding model.

My answer is that we’re trying to foster equality of opportunity, so that all kids, irrespective of where they live or how much their parents earn or what sacrifices those parents are able or willing to make, get the chance of a decent education at a school with good facilities, services, resources and teachers. Once you arrive at that answer it becomes clear that the funding model should ensure that all schools achieve at least a base reasonable level of facilities, services and so. The funding model must be based on the standard of facilities, services etc of the school, not some half-baked system that attempts to estimate the parents’ income by use of proxy measures and irrespective of the facilities the school already possesses.

If parents then want to make financial sacrifices to send their kids to a school with even better facilities, services etc, then good luck to them. They’re entitled to make that choice, but at their own expense. Government only has a certain amount of revenue available, and it should spend it where it’s most needed to bring facilities and services at all schools up to a common standard of excellence. That has nothing to do with “envy” and everything to do with basic notions of fairness and equality of opportunity. In fact, the Headmaster of The King’s School seems to agree with this proposition, even if Graham Young doesn’t (via Robert Corr):

There is no question that we at the King’s school enjoy the most wonderful resources, and we don’t pretend otherwise. And there’s no way that I’m going to argue that we need this money in the sense of because there are, I’ve got colleagues and friends in the state sector and other schools which are very poorly resourced, and they desperately need more money, but the point that I make is, that I think that it is proper and fair for the Government to give some support to the King’s school, because we already save the Government about over $12-million a year, and therefore some small recognition, even if it’s relatively tokenistic would be I think appropriate.

However, as Rob Corr goes on to point out, Labor’s policy does provide “some small recognition” to all schools including Kings and Scotch College, in the form of a base level of funding per student that all of them receive. But those with lesser levels of facilities and resources receive more, and that’s as it should be.

That isn’t to say Labor’s policy is optimally fair by any means. As Dave Ricardo pointed out in the comment box of the previous post, the richest Jewish schools in Melbourne have beene exempted from the cuts inflicted on King’s and Scotch College, almost certainly because including them would have imperilled Michael Danby’s marginal seat of Port Melbourne.

And, as Graham Young observed in his post, the Catholic schools appear to have done a deal with Labor that results in their receiving a bigger slice of the federal pie than Anglican, other Protestant and Muslim schools, even though the latter have experienced much larger increases in enrolments over the last few years and are at least equally needy in terms of facilities etc.

In summary, Labor’s policy is a political document, but political in a significantly fairer way than the Coalition’s existing policy. The Howard government calculatedly redefined the concept of “need” when it came into office so as to deliver more money to wealthy private schools at the expense of their poorer colleagues. Labor will redress that inequity and put the focus back on the needs of schools where it belongs. But in doing so it seems to be giving special deals to some private schools for reasons of political expediency quite unrelated to any objective comparative assessment of school need. Labor’s policy is superior but far from perfect.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Graham Young
2021 years ago

Ken,

If Labor’s policy is so fair, show me where it has a transparent method of calculating what amount schools ought to receive. That particular schools may be exempted from the hit list because including them might hurt the reelection chances of Michael Danby suggests that there is no such transparent method and that the policy is discriminatory, which is my charge.

Whatever the minor problems with the government’s SES system, it doesn’t allow the government to discriminate, and the charge that it was set up to in some way benefit wealthy schools is a knee-jerk reaction in the other direction to my own alleged knee-jerk. The reason that some private schools increased their take was for two reasons. One appears to be to do with whether or not they are boarding schools; the other that they are actually educating more people from poorer backgrounds than is perceived. The formula was arrived at by the department and a committee, and the committee had a fairly broad representation across schools on it, so it is unlikely that they were running to some sort of secret agenda set by Kings and Geelong Grammar!

For the record, I think that in the ideal world funds ought to follow the child and be based on a sliding scale against family income. The Government’s SES scheme is a step in the right direction, and Labor’s scheme is a step back into the past.

Martin Pike
Martin Pike
2021 years ago

And who has heard a more fatuous argument than the PM whining on about “choice”?

How many parents have the “choice” to send a kid to the King’s school? I feel banal making this old point, which is well-worn, yet why is the ridiculous line about choice still being trotted out?

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2021 years ago

Graham

Have a look at Labor’s policy document (PDF file) at page 6:

“Raising the resource bar

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2021 years ago

This freedom of choice argument is total hogwash.

Anybody with the money can choose to send their sons to Kings and their daughters to Ascham. If they don’t have that kind of money, they can choose to send their kids to cheaper private schools or to public schools.

Anybody with the money can choose to buy a 7 series BMW for their transportation needs. If they don’t have that kind of money, they can choose to buy a 3 series BMW or use public transport.

As far as I am aware, the Howard government has not (yet) subsidised the purchase of 7 series Beemers. I don’t think that anyone (yet) has advanced the argument that this hascompromised anybody’s freedom of choice in transportation. If they did, they’d be laughed at (I hope).

The same goes for private education. If you want, and can afford, to have your kids educated at expensive private schools, go right ahead. It’s your choice to make. Just don’t expect to be entitled (as the Kings headmaster put it yesterday) to a public subsidy.

Tom Davies
Tom Davies
2021 years ago

An interesting question regarding vouchers is: What would be the impact of having a market in education where every parent was a customer?

What would happen as parents expressed their preferences through their choice of school?

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2021 years ago

Tom,

as Murray Rothbard explained, vouchers don’t get us much closer to free market schooling at all. Vouchers will begin well enough, but before long successive governments will cumulatively tie more and more conditions to them. Most schools, faced with going out of business if they don’t accept the vouchers, will take the conditions on.

In short, the key advantages of free market schooling – competition on price and diversity of curricula and teaching methods – will be squashed by the centralising force of vouchers-plus-conditions.

The fact is that once you take the public subsidy, you’ve given up a substantial measure of autonomy. Observe the universities.

loofer
loofer
2021 years ago

Without using the actual tax returns of families they estimated incomes on the basis of the socio-demographic of the areas from which they drew students. (This can be done fairly precisely on the basis of the 200 or so houses making up a census collector district).

The problem with this method of determining funding is that such students are often from reasonably well off families who live in poorer rural districts and I wouldn’t characterise it as precise at all. 200 houses can cover a bloody huge distance in some areas.

My rural Queensland cousins were/are all from pretty bloody poor areas, but were from reasonably wealthy families, and all went off to expensive Brisbane/Sydney private schools. A large proportion of their school friends seem to fit into the same boat.

Chris Burns
Chris Burns
2021 years ago

The entire focus on government funding is on the $s per student. Something I am yet to see is an acknowledgment by the private school sector of all the other “subsidies” they receieve eg state developed curricula, the ability to award HSC, a supply of government subsidised & educated teachers etc. If we want to live in a world of choice & user pays, I’m all for “transparency” in the way we define it.

Thomas the Tout
Thomas the Tout
2021 years ago

Idea. Tertiary education is not compulsory, so if students wish to attend a private campus, they cannot expect a subsidy. True, n’est pas?

Schooling is compulsory until a set age. (e.g. 16 years). So why not require all secondary students above that age to pay school fees [full cost recovery basis]?
Then wait and see how many of them vote with their feet.

yarraside
yarraside
2021 years ago

Parents sending their children to private schools pay twice – once in their taxes (a proportionally greater share of which subsidise children attending state schools, than their own kids’ schools) and again in fees.

Labor thinks they should pay even more – by getting an even smaller return on their tax dollar than they do now.

Parents sending their kids to state schools pay only once (through the tax system) – and even then don’t even cover the cost of educating their kids.

For all the bipartisan political rhetoric about the importance of education, you would think that the Left would rather encourage parents to invest in their childrens’ education, rather than on (as Dave would have it) a flash car.

Every child sent to a private school costs government less and thereby increases the available funds for the public sector.

Unfortunately, envy (yes, Ken, I use that word because it’s appropriate) means that the Left would rather kill the golden goose that are parents prepared to work hard and devote their financial resources to their children’s education.

Besides, the funding cuts to the hit list schools will likely have the effect of increasing fees further and/or reducing the availability of scholarships and bursaries – both of which will make it even harder for the non-rich to send their children to those schools.

So much for “easing the squeeze”.

trackback
2021 years ago

Funding democracy

Labor’s education policy release has some good things in it, as Robert Corr reports. It was also interesting to see Labor making a pledge to restore funding to the ABC: A Labor government says it would restore the ABC’s finances…

trackback
2021 years ago

A sensible schools policy