The compilers of the IPA Review 13 biggest mistakes list think that it is impossible to even trial a genuine parental choice system, where the money follows the pupil. Leaving aside the dispute over whether federal private school funding contributed to this situation, they may well be right to be pessimistic.
We can say two reasonably clear things about public opinion on schools.
The first is that private schools are generally seen as ‘better’ in various ways. With nearly a third of students already at private schools, obviously there is considerable revealed preference to that effect. Thousands of dollars paid every year are more convincing than any answer to an opinion pollster, but the polls back up those actions and add more. The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes has twice, in 2003 and 2005, asked its respondents to agree or disagree with the proposition that ‘private schools offer better education than public schools’. On each occasion, about half have agreed and a quarter disagreed.
Back in 1994, a Saulwick poll asked if its resondents had children, and money was no object, would they send their child to a private school? 58% said yes. Among respondents with children actually at a government school, 45% said they would choose a private school, suggesting a large minority would like a voucher that they could use at a school of their choosing. Ten years later, in 2004, an ACNielsen poll for the SMH (some information here, but the page is dysfunctioning) found that 34% of government school parents would not choose a government school if the cost of the alternatives was the same. Again, we could infer a constituency for vouchers here. Put together the parents who have already taken their kids to private schools and the parents who would like to and there is probably a small majority for proper school choice.
But the second thing we know about public opinion on schools casts doubt on that conclusion. This is that ALP/Australian Education Union campaigns on school funding have had an impact. When asked to agree or disagree with the proposition that ‘public schools receive less than their fair share of the education budget’, 3 polls in 2003, 2004 and 2005 came up with almost exactly the same result of nearly two-thirds agreement. Perhaps this just means that they think government schools should get more without private schools getting less. But in a 2004 Saulwick poll, 40% rejected the idea that paying taxes entitled parents to any financial assistance for sending their kids to a private school (though this was 11 percentage points down on 2001). So there is considerable scepticism about increasing funding for private schools.
The seems to be a stalemate here. There is too much support for the existing private schools for the left to achieve its goal of an entirely state-controlled system. But there also seems to be too much opposition to further funding of private schools to give all parents choice. Private school enrolments are likely to continue growing, aided by federal government policy and greater affluence meaning more parents can satisfy their underlying preferences. But unless their kids are bright enough to get scholarships, many poorer parents will just have to take their chances with the state system.