From Andrew Leigh:
I’ve enjoyed your writings on education for some time, so am chuffed to be discussing perhaps the biggest issue in education policy: should we have public schools at all? I’m also pleased for another reason – after a year of getting beaten up by the AEU and ACER for my work on teacher quality, I’m finally lining up with the comrades on an education policy issue.
Our question concerns one of the great puzzles of public finance. Across the globe, there is huge variation in whether governments play an active role in banking, airlines, pensions, and even health. But so far as I am aware, every government in the world runs a large share of the schools in that country. As Julius Sumner Miller (a privately-paid educator, you’ll point out) used to say on Australian television, ‘Why is it so?’
You suggest one answer: governments use public education as a means of indoctrinating their citizenry. I don’t deny that this can be important. My mother – an educational anthropologist – wrote her PhD thesis on the way in which the Indonesian government used schools in Aceh to indoctrinate young Acehnese minds into the belief that their identity was as Indonesians first, and Acehnese second.
Still, indoctrination isn’t all bad. I’d like to live in an Australia where children shared a basic understanding of democratic values, and understood our geography and our history. I’m more confident that public schools will achieve this than I am about private schools. Sure, lots of people have been fighting over what should be in the school curriculum, but we’ve also been hotly arguing about refugee policy and water policy. Sometimes conflict is a sign that an issue matters.
You seem to be worried that the agenda is being hijacked by a particular interest group. It’s true that the kinds of people who self-select into the teaching profession are not politically representative of society as a whole. But in some sense that’s inevitable (beyond politicians themselves, it’s hard to think of an occupation whose members are politically representative of the broader community). Moreover, when I’ve looked at surveys that measure the attitudes of teachers in public and private schools, I can’t tell the two groups apart – so it’s not clear that scrapping public schools would leave you with a more politically centrist group of teachers.
What’s interesting to me about your position on this issue is that you’re not arguing that the government should stop funding schools. Implicitly, you accept that there are sound economic reasons for governments to pay for schooling (as James Heckman likes to say, the biggest credit constraint is the inability of a bright child to buy good parents). So you’re either arguing (1) for the private school funding to be raised to the same level as public school funding, or (2) for the government to get out of the schooling game entirely.
Fortunately, we have an interesting natural experiment of reform (1). In 1981, the Chilean military government passed a law (or whatever dictatorships do to put things into effect) that gave the same per-child funding to non-government and government schools. Fifteen years later, 62% of kids were still in government schools. This suggests to me that when they can vote with their feet, most parents will still choose government schools. Perhaps many Chilean parents didn’t even have a choice. In remote areas, government schools have distinct economies of scale, since they can rely on the central bureaucracy for administrative support. In the Australian context, would the private sector really set up a public school in the Cape York community of Arukun in exchange for $11,000 per child?
Public education is worth preserving because it helps engender shared knowledge and values; because a public system guarantees access for all children; and because its economies of scale will often make the public sector more efficient than the private sector.