“This nation was built in its classrooms” - Dr Ken Boston, member of Gonski reform panel, former head of NSW Department of Education.
When it comes to education, Greens believe that the first priority for public money is to invest it in our nation-building public schools. Non-public enterprise has no automatic entitlement to public funds -- and so to the greatest possible extent we Greens seek to reserve public money solely for public schools.
(Excerpts below originally published in GreenMail Spring 2014 edition)
I don’t pretend that this policy position will be automatically understood and accepted by all voters (or even some Greens!) you may encounter. In some circles it will be met with puzzlement, even resistance. This is due to the decades-long efforts of the private school lobby to work their consumerist, commodified, neoliberal ideologies (such as ‘choice’ and ‘government monopoly’) into the education debate.
How did we get here?
Over the last 40 years, the once-outlandish provision of public funds to private schools has attained the status of a political orthodoxy, endorsed by Liberal, Labor and National parties. And like most orthodoxies, it gives rise to systemic inequity and entrenches privilege.
With the private school lobby’s efforts to undermine the status and central importance of public education in the national mindset, we find ourselves having to re-prosecute the case for public funding of education in Australia. This is a case that was first settled in the late nineteenth century, then strengthened in the postwar years, but which in recent decades has been waylaid by the twin siren calls of consumerism and commodification during the late-20th century neoliberal ascendency.
In taking up this case, we are in good company — no lesser a nation-builder than Henry Parkes, back in pre-Federation times, argued for and helped win the right of Australian children to receive a free, universal and secular education. It is a legacy and a national heritage of which we, the Greens, are the best, strongest and proudest defenders. We must remain resolute in our position on this issue, and refuse to kow-tow to the special pleading and sectional interests of the privateers in education and “edu-business”.
But sadly, the current educational funding arrangements are working against the national interest. At present, we are committing public funds to the benefit of the narrow sectional interests and special pleading, making our school system overall both more expensive and of lesser quality than it could be. This situation mirrors the spectacular stupidity of the US health system, which is both fantastically expensive but also overall not of great quality. It is time we threw off the hood, rejected the neoliberal language and commodification of education, and returned to what we know: education is a human right and a public good, not a tradeable commodity.
We Greens must provide voters with a clear articulation and a reminder of why Australians all need public education to be the best it can be, and why the private school lobby does not deserve a single dollar at the expense of children in public schools:
- Evidence, not ideology: The Greens NSW policy is evidence-based, in stark contrast to the ideological neoliberalism that has powered the private school lobby’s cash-grab on public funds. When public funds are restored to public education, making the system more equitable, fairer and more inclusive, we can expect to see an improvement in our national benchmarks.
- Genuine meritocracy: Greens believe in a genuine meritocracy, where success depends on hard work and ability, not a family’s capacity to pay. Only through a fairly- and fully-funded public education system will we see a true meritocracy emerge in Australia.
- Education is a human right and a public good, not a purchaseable commodity: The views of the private school lobby conceptualise education solely as an individual entitlement (for securing individual advantage) and ignore its value as a public good, a shared civic duty and a human right. This is an attack on human dignity that should be rejected by all Greens members.
- National interest: Sad to say, we have been hoodwinked by the private schools lobby into believing that the greatest value in education lies in what it can do for us as individuals, not what it can do for all of us as a society and a nation. The result is families puring vast amounts of money, worry and time into an educational arms-race, fooled (I’m sorry to say) into believing it is their ‘choice’ to pay through the nose, for what is actually theirs by right.
- Don’t be deceived by the neoliberal agenda: Neoliberals have become quite accomplished in disguising their privatisation, for-profit agenda behind benign-sounding appeals to individual ‘choice’. But the spoonful of sugar in such sentiments disguises a bitter neoliberal pill that puts the individual above the collective, and undermines the social compact.
- The classrooms build the nation: Schools are where we learn to be citizens, and we should teach our children that we are all citizens together, with none excluded. What sort of civic lessons do we teach our children, when we show them that with money, you can erect a gate and exclude those with whom your parents don’t wish for you to associate, or with money, you can keep out ideas, concepts and plans you don’t like? Instead of citizenship, private schools teach privilege. Instead of social justice, private schools teach individual entitlement. Perhaps not in their declared curriculum — but rather in their structural DNA, for the very ability to exclude is written into their charters.
- Private schools do NOT “save taxpayer money”, they weaken our national system: One of the most pernicious lies peddled by the private school lobby is that students enrolled in private schools somehow save the taxpayer money. Yet with every student withdrawn from the public system, vital public funds go with them, leaving public schools in a weakened state (and explaining why Australia’s educational performance has suffered as private enrolments have grown).
A NSW public school with 500 students costs just as much to run as a school with 501 students — yet they must do so with some $8,000-$11,000 per year less. Multiply this by tens or dozens of students lost to the private sector, per school, and you can see that the private sector has become parasitical on the public system, weakening the vitality of our nation’s educational host. We should not demur from the task of restoring strength to our nation-building public education system.
- Individual liberty and conscience should stand alone — I respect the views of the libertarians and the anti-collectivists enough to insist they “walk their talk” and pay for the full cost of their demands. Just as we expect polluters to pay for using the sky as an open drain, we expect those who would withdraw from the social compact to own the total cost of their exclusionary stance.
- A reason to vote Green: You cannot slip a playing-card between Liberal and Labor on private school funding. But the Greens policy offers something different to Australian families: a guarantee that we will work to ensure every dollar available for education is spent where it belongs — in our public schools, TAFEs and public universities, for the benefit of all Australian students.
In summary, the Greens are the only party prepared to fight for the national interest in education, demanding that the public education systems in all states and territories receive the funding they need to perform at their best, and so raise all Australian children, and our whole society, to be the best it can be. It is a policy goal that is evidence-based, humane, sustainable and socially just, and deserves to be fought for and advocated by Greens members across Australia.