Should public schools be privatised? Day 2

[Introduction] [Day 1]

From Andrew Leigh:

Dear A.N,

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.
Continue reading “Should public schools be privatised? Day 2”

Should public schools be privatised? Day 1

Day 1

Hi A.L,

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?



A bloggish debate

As Andrew Leigh explains, this week we are trying something a little different, what he calls a ‘bloggish debate’. He mentions Slate‘s Breakfast Table as a model, but the exchange of letters has long been used by print publications in the same or subsequent issues to debate issues. Prospect runs debates , as does Philosophers’ Magazine, where my debate with Alan Soble on whether gay bars should be able to keep out women and straights is to appear.

Andrew and I will discuss a rather more important issue than a gay bar’s door policy, whether public schools should be privatised. The same material will appear on both blogs. I’m going to turn comments off as we post on alternate days, and then open them when we are finished.

Troeth faction splits

Senator Troeth, a former party vice-president who has been in Parliament for 14 years, told The Age the Costello-dominated committee’s decision to override Mr Baillieu’s bid to run a candidate in last month’s byelection for the state seat of Albert Park was “simply disgraceful”.

– Victorian Liberal Senator Judith Troeth, reported on page 1 of today’s Age.

Despite John Howard accepting responsibility for last weekend’s result, it cannot all be laid at his feet. Many of the problems the party faced were caused by a weak and subservient organisational wing that lacked the courage to stand up to the parliamentary wing.

– Victorian Liberal Senator Judith Troeth, in her opinion piece published in today’s Age.

Election 2007 celebrity politics

One upside of the 2007 election was the failure of celebrity politics. Big names and big dollars were after Malcolm Turnbull in Wentworth, yet there was a swing to him of 1.19%, against a NSW swing away from the government of 5.65%.

Across the harbour in Bennelong, Labor’s celebrity candidate Maxine McKew, though clearly with qualifications for the job beyond a long TV career, won with a swing of 5.38%, slightly below the NSW average. Perhaps a less-well-known Labor candidate wouldn’t have been able to get Labor over the line in Bennelong against a Prime Minister, but the celebrity factor isn’t obvious in the numbers.

Nor was a celebrity factor clearly showing for former TV weatherman Mike Bailey, running against Joe Hockey in North Sydney. His swing of 4.8% was also below the NSW state average.

In the South Australian seat of Boothby, Nicole Cornes probably did get a celebrity effect – far more publicity for her blunders than she might have received had she been more obscure. She did get a swing to Labor of 2.33%, but that was only just over a third of the overall South Australian swing.

Many voters probably do make their election decision for superficial reasons, but in 2007 their interest in celebrities did not seem to be among them.