According to Australian Education Union election advertising, we need a federal government that will put public education first. But do we need public education at all? Would there be anyone calling for it, if we did not have it already?
People are used to the idea of state schools, so they don’t think about how uneasily government-controlled education fits with liberal democracy. If someone said that Australia’s media should be owned by the state, with journalists told by the state what they should say, with media audiences examined to make sure they had absorbed the official line, there would be predictable and justifiable outrage.
Yet public education means essentially that for Australia’s young people. The government owns most schools, employs most teachers, tells them what to teach through state-set curricula, and examines students to make sure they have it right—even kids escaping to private schools can’t avoid these last two aspects of state-run education. And unlike state-owned media, there are severe consequences for ignoring state education.
Across the political spectrum, activists want to use public education to influence young minds. In his book Dumbing Down, Kevin Donnelly documents how left-wing academics and teachers shape curricula to fit their political agenda. In government, the Liberal Party proposed a national history curriculum, which was widely seen as another front in the so-called ‘culture wars’.
Rather than fostering social unity, as some of its supporters claim, state-controlled education is a source of division and nastiness. Instead of allowing different groups to devise their own curriculum, and letting parents choose between them, we fight over a common curriculum. The public education lobby stirs class and sectarian resentment in its attempts to take funding from private schools.
And what is it, can you remind me, that makes public education worth preserving?