Three pages into School Choice: How Parents Negotiate the New School Market in Australia, its authors tells us that in developing their argument ‘we are responsive to two books by Michael Pusey’. This is not a good start. As usual in discussing ‘neoliberalism’, the views of those who might plausibly be described as ‘neoliberals’ are not discussed in any detail, with passing mentions of arguments from the CIS and the Menzies Research Centre, accompanied by a grudging concession that the Howard government never followed the logic of these organisations’ arguments to ‘the end’.
Pusey has long argued that ‘economic rationalism’/ neoliberalism was an essentially alien ideology imposed on unwilling citizens. And the authors of School Choice – Craig Campbell, Helen Proctor, and Geoffrey Sherington – pursue that logic to some extent in noting parents who felt that they had had to make a school choice, when really they would have preferred just to send their kids to a ‘quality’ local school.
But a much stronger case can be made that school choice has deep roots in Australian history and politics, and that while there is a distinctive ‘neoliberal’ set of arguments these are not what has given this issue political momentum.
The current public schooling system derives largely from a series of reforms around the then Australian colonies in the 1870s, in which education was made free at public schools and compulsory for all young people, and state aid to the previous dominant private schools was withdrawn. This was a major issue in the middle decades of the 19th century, and the idea of public education was never fully accepted – at least for their own kids – in significant parts of Australian society, especially the Protestant elites and Catholics more generally.
Right through the period of no state aid the Catholics maintained a large school system, so that even with no direct state assistance about a quarter of Australian children attended private, mainly Catholic, schools. So many families have long traditions of attending private schools.
The felt injustice of such a large section of the electorate paying twice for education – once through their taxes, and again through school fees – combined with declining anti-Catholic feeling among Protestants meant that, by the 1960s, both sides of politics were in favour of state aid (interestingly, some Protestant schools resisted initially – rightly fearing the conditions that would be attached to state money).
As a history of state aid to private schools reports, by the early 1970s the rhetoric of school choice had been adopted by the Liberal Party. So the movement for state assistance to private schools, including the language of choice, was part of Australian politics long before ‘neoliberalism’ was a major intellectual force.
Once the institutions of school choice were firmly established, it is hardly surprising that more and more parents moved to the private system. There had long been serious problems in the government school sector, as the Karmel report documented in the early 1970s. As the labour market increasingly rewarded education, poor quality schools became of greater concern to parents. And quality issues aside, it is likely that as affluence rose increasing numbers of parents would be able to afford schooling more closely aligned to their religious beliefs or what they thought best suited their children.
Politicians cannot ignore such widely held and strongly felt concerns, which is why governments of both parties, albeit relucantly for some on the Labor side, have supported state aid for private schools. We don’t need ‘neoliberalism’ to explain this.
The main ‘neoliberal’ twist on these old arguments is to point to the dynamic effects of competition between schools; that is not just the kids who move schools who are better off, it is most kids because schools have to improve to retain their students. I’m not sure that this has been a very influential argument. A word search on ‘competition’ in the history of state aid does not turn up any relevant references. The main public supporters of state aid – the private schools themselves – tend not to directly criticise government schools because it would provoke unnecessary controversy, and so cannot easily argue for state aid on the grounds that it would sharpen the performance of inadequate government schools.
I think ‘neoliberal’ arguments on schools are intellectually important. I am far less convinced that they have been politically influential.