Associate Professor Craig Campbell has form for dubious use of ‘neoliberalism‘ as an explainer. Twelve months ago I took Campbell and his co-authors of School Choice to task for making a similar claim about the influence of ‘neoliberalism’ on schools policy.
My argument that private school policy has deep roots in Australian political and educational history, long predating ‘neoliberalism’, is supported by a new history of the state aid debate, Graeme Starr’s Variety and Choice: Good Schools for All Australians, published by the Menzies Research Centre.
Despite Starr’s title, his book suggests that neither variety nor choice were very important arguments in the revival of state aid to non-government schools in the 1960s. Rather two other arguments dominated the state aid debate, justice and need.
The justice argument arose because despite the absence of state aid from the 1870s onwards, the Catholics and some Protestants had maintained their own school systems. In the early 1960s they had half a million students. Particularly the Catholics were aggrieved that they paid taxes to support education, but received nothing in return. They felt that they had a right to support, and that to grant it would deliver justice.
The need argument was also important. Many Catholic schools were seriously under-resourced compared to government schools. Their problems were exacerbated as the Catholic population expanded in the post-war decades, but fewer people were joining the religious orders that had historically provided much of the teaching workforce in Catholic schools.
State aid wasn’t originally primarily about promoting choice or variety; it was a consequence of choices that had already been made and variety that already existed. Indeed, in the initial years of state aid government schools gained market share.
Though choice rhetoric started to appear in Liberal Party statements in the 1970s, the fact that the Australian debate on schools funding started from the position of a large private sector has given it a different flavour to the American debate. There the debate primarily has been about providing school choice where previously there was none, but here justice and need arguments have dominated.
Starr’s book documents the struggle between the ideas of justice and need. Justice implies that all parents are entitled to some financial support for education, wherever they send their kids to school. Need implies that only schools with low levels of resources should receive government financial support.
Labor has traditionally supported need only; hence their various ‘hit lists’ of wealthy schools they believe should be defunded (though as Starr shows, even adopting need was a 1960s ALP compromise – many Labor activists and MPs opposed any state aid). The Liberals have supported a mix of need and justice, with all schools to receive some support but different levels depending on first the school’s resources and then later a parental socioeconomic measure.
The incorporation of need into Liberal schools policy means that they have never supported the full choice model: identical resourcing of schools, regardless of ownership status. They have, however, fostered greater choice, especially by abolishing Labor’s restrictions on new private schools.
A weakness of Starr’s book – though it is a useful and readable summary of the history of political party policies and the views of major interest groups – is that there is little discussion of the competing claims made about public vs private education. While Campbell and his co-authors overplay the actual influence of ‘neoliberalism’, Starr has too little on the distinctive claims of ‘neoliberalism’ not just to provide parental choice but to improve schools through competition. I can recall only one mention of this in his book. The literature on school performance is not discussed. In this respect, the title is again misleading – it is not about what makes ‘good schools’.
This has perhaps kept the book out of some major controversies. But it means that Variety and Choice only partly covers contemporary debates about variety and choice.