What a brutal final paragraph! So if I don’t support your plan, I guess that makes me a conservative who doesn’t care about teacher quality. Few arrows could have better found their target.
I’m pleased that you and I have found common ground on civics, at least. I began by claiming that public schools provided a common crucible. You said that public school civics was in crisis. But since neither of us could provide empirical evidence, we weren’t willing to stand fiercely by our claims (incidentally, I think this is why people like John Quiggin and I enjoy arguing with you so much more than we enjoy arguing with many people on the right of the political spectrum). Perhaps one day, policymakers will have some believable causal estimates of the impact of school type on some set of ‘good’ civic indicators. In the absence of that, only the firebrands will be able to stay passionate about that one.
So now we’re left with the more traditional economic arguments. You take the view that privatised public schools will be more efficient and more equitable. I think the opposite is true on both counts. Whether it’s for political or economic reasons, companies like Edison Schools that have set up to run large numbers of schools have done very badly. According to their Wikipedia entry, their costs are higher than the public system, and they have still failed to make a profit in all except one quarter of their existence. A result like this makes me concerned about the viability of such a model in Australia. If private schools have one-third of the market when they get 55% of the government funding, can we really be confident that they could make a viable go of it in the rest of the market with 100% of the government funding? Shocking as it may sound coming from an economist, I think there may be some things that governments do better than markets, and one of them is running schools.
On the equity argument, I don’t think that the high use of a public service by the rich automatically suggests we should privatise it. My guess is that roads are used more by the rich than the poor, but I think the government has a core function in roadbuilding. National defence and policing are also of more benefit to the rich, since they have more to lose from civil unrest. But that doesn’t make me think that privatising them would help the poor. The good burghers of Rose Bay would find it much easier to set up their own private police force than those in Rooty Hill.
Related to the equity argument is the question of peer effects. You say that “Unlike the public school lobby, I don’t think kids should be conscripted into providing peer effects for their classmates.” Unlike either of you, I think the answer depends on whether peer effects are nonlinear. If the benefit that high-ability kids bring to low-ability kids is much larger than the cost that low-ability kids impose on high-ability kids, then perhaps we would want to dragoon high-ability kids into underperforming schools. (I’m reminded here of a comment that my thesis supervisor Christopher Jencks once made about neighbourhood effects: ‘it’s odd that policymakers spend a lot of time thinking about how to subsidise poor people to live in middle-income suburbs, when it might be cheaper to pay a few rich people to live in poor suburbs’.)
But I still haven’t removed your most wounding barb – that my nihilistic position leaves me as a conservative who doesn’t care about teacher quality. And I guess that here I can only fall back on my faith that governments eventually do the right thing. It took most of the twentieth century before the progressive side of Australian politics finally realised that surrounding ourselves with high tariff walls hurt the poor more than it helped them. Part of the challenge was that organised labour represented producer interests, while consumer interests were disparate and disorganised. It took a succession of tariff board reports, industry restructuring plans, and a lot of talking before a Labor government finally took action. When it comes to education policy, I think the same is true today. The voices of teachers are much more forceful than those that advocate for children’s interests. Sometimes, what’s good for teachers is good for kids. But not always.
You’re right that those looking for bold ideas on teacher quality have not exactly been deluged by innovative proposals in this campaign. Nonetheless, to simply sell off all schools would effectively give up on education policymakers. By contrast, I’m still optimistic enough to believe that just as economists’ ideas prevailed in the domain of trade policy, the same can happen in education policy. As Keynes famously wrote, “the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else.”
Thanks for the discussion. It’s been a pleasure.