The Australian this morning suggests that the economic downturn, combined with rising private school fees, will send students back into the public school system:
Having already noticed a drift from the private system to public schools, Kate Cooper, principal of Mosman Public School in the heart of Sydney’s wealthy north shore, told The Australian yesterday that she expected the movement to grow this year, partly as a result of the global financial crisis.
The SMH ran a similar story a couple of months ago.
If this does turn out to be the case, it would be consistent with my general thesis on school funding: that as affluence rises, people want to spend more on education, and that this explains both the long-term growth in private schools and the consistent polling showing that people want more money spent on public education. Correspondingly, in a downturn I would expect these trends to moderate.
However, the underlying trend will remain towards private schools. Despite the particularly intense controversy over private school policy during the Howard years, the actual enrolment shifts were not hugely different from the previous Labor government. On average during the Hawke-Keating years private schools gained .36% of market share per year. Under the Howard government, the average was .39% of market share per year.
However, while I would predict a moderation in the trend during a downturn this does not mean that private school enrolments will decline. Recessions are very uneven in their impact, and for those who keep their jobs they can actually be reasonably good years. So far, many more families with school-age children would have benefited from falling interest rates and other price falls than would have experienced job loss, though concerns about jobs will make some wary of taking on the extra costs of private school education.
The last recession in the early 1990s, which was much more severe than anything yet seen in Australia this time, gives an example of what might happen. Private school enrolments kept growing in absolute terms but their expansion in market share slumped to just .01% for each of 1991 and 1992.
Any stalling of private school enrolments in the next couple of years is similarly likely to be no more than a temporary break in the long-term trend.