Justice, need, and choice: arguments for private school funding since the 1960s

Associate Professor Craig Campbell has form for dubious use of ‘neoliberalism‘ as an explainer. Twelve months ago I took Campbell and his co-authors of School Choice to task for making a similar claim about the influence of ‘neoliberalism’ on schools policy.

My argument that private school policy has deep roots in Australian political and educational history, long predating ‘neoliberalism’, is supported by a new history of the state aid debate, Graeme Starr’s Variety and Choice: Good Schools for All Australians, published by the Menzies Research Centre.

Despite Starr’s title, his book suggests that neither variety nor choice were very important arguments in the revival of state aid to non-government schools in the 1960s. Rather two other arguments dominated the state aid debate, justice and need.

The justice argument arose because despite the absence of state aid from the 1870s onwards, the Catholics and some Protestants had maintained their own school systems. In the early 1960s they had half a million students. Particularly the Catholics were aggrieved that they paid taxes to support education, but received nothing in return. They felt that they had a right to support, and that to grant it would deliver justice.

The need argument was also important. Many Catholic schools were seriously under-resourced compared to government schools. Their problems were exacerbated as the Catholic population expanded in the post-war decades, but fewer people were joining the religious orders that had historically provided much of the teaching workforce in Catholic schools.

State aid wasn’t originally primarily about promoting choice or variety; it was a consequence of choices that had already been made and variety that already existed. Indeed, in the initial years of state aid government schools gained market share.

Though choice rhetoric started to appear in Liberal Party statements in the 1970s, the fact that the Australian debate on schools funding started from the position of a large private sector has given it a different flavour to the American debate. There the debate primarily has been about providing school choice where previously there was none, but here justice and need arguments have dominated.

Starr’s book documents the struggle between the ideas of justice and need. Justice implies that all parents are entitled to some financial support for education, wherever they send their kids to school. Need implies that only schools with low levels of resources should receive government financial support.

Labor has traditionally supported need only; hence their various ‘hit lists’ of wealthy schools they believe should be defunded (though as Starr shows, even adopting need was a 1960s ALP compromise – many Labor activists and MPs opposed any state aid). The Liberals have supported a mix of need and justice, with all schools to receive some support but different levels depending on first the school’s resources and then later a parental socioeconomic measure.

The incorporation of need into Liberal schools policy means that they have never supported the full choice model: identical resourcing of schools, regardless of ownership status. They have, however, fostered greater choice, especially by abolishing Labor’s restrictions on new private schools.

A weakness of Starr’s book – though it is a useful and readable summary of the history of political party policies and the views of major interest groups – is that there is little discussion of the competing claims made about public vs private education. While Campbell and his co-authors overplay the actual influence of ‘neoliberalism’, Starr has too little on the distinctive claims of ‘neoliberalism’ not just to provide parental choice but to improve schools through competition. I can recall only one mention of this in his book. The literature on school performance is not discussed. In this respect, the title is again misleading – it is not about what makes ‘good schools’.

This has perhaps kept the book out of some major controversies. But it means that Variety and Choice only partly covers contemporary debates about variety and choice.

30 thoughts on “Justice, need, and choice: arguments for private school funding since the 1960s

  1. “Justice implies that all parents are entitled to some financial support for education, wherever they send their kids to school.”

    Where is the justice in taking taxes from comparatively poor people to subsidise the schools of the wealthy? Perpetuating inequality is hardly justice.


  2. Russell – Do you support funding government schools without any regard for parental income, so that rich parents receive as much as poor parents? With so minor variations at the edges, that’s how the public education system works – far more regressive than the private school funding system.

    In any case, poor people do not subsidise the rich. The bottom 50% of Australians receive more government income support and service subsidies than they pay in tax.


  3. Andrew – Even if you cut out the poorest 50%, I don’t see why it’s just that the parents of a kid that can only afford a state school should be subsiding a child of rich parents who is enjoying a superior education in luxurious facilities.
    Yes I do support funding government schools without any regard for parental income because (if I were running the tax system) the richer parents should be paying their fair share as tax.
    I can’t see how different schools systems offering varying standards of education, based on wealth, can ever help create a fair start for kids. Though possibly, if this information about schools is used to make sure that the gap in performance is narrowed, I might change my mind. I imagine that would mean starting with better pre-school opportunities in the poor performing areas.


  4. “The bottom 50% of Australians receive more government income support and service subsidies than they pay in tax.”
    It’s also worth remembering how well the rich are treated – I’m just reading a Brotherhood of St Laurence publication and came across this:
    “An analysis of the $50 billion in tax concessions available for housing shows that the majority of government support for home ownership is going to people on high incomes. Likewise, data available for superannuation shows that the $24 billion in annual tax concessions are disproportionately benefitting people on high incomes (Treasury 2009).”


  5. Russell – It’s true that the average tax rates on well-off people are lower than might superficially be thought based on high marginal tax rates. But it’s also true that the top 25% of earners do all the fiscal heavy-lifting in this country, paying for all their own government services and virtually all those consumed by the heavily welfare dependent, plus raising the living standards of many people who are productive but still consume more than they produce.


  6. Andrew Norton’

    Their is no ethical argument or claim to justice to defend the state handing over millions of public money directly to discriminatory and exclusive private schools.


  7. The argument is that the state requires education up to age 15 or 16, and encourages it thereafter. Provided the basics are taught it ought to be indifferent to the religous or other cultural affiliations of the school. Effectively it discriminates significantly against private schools, by penalising them for the socioeconomic background of their students, while not doing the same for government schools.


  8. Remember that any school funding formula has to treat the Catholic schools the same as other private schools (many of which have a religious background). Arguing to cut all government support to non-government schools would destroy the Catholic system which generally has much much lower fees that the “exclusive”.

    Peter there is no ethical argument or justice in lots of the handing over of public money by government. Is it really fair for government to fund government schools that have selective academic entry? Or only allow those that live within the zone access? Anyone who can afford to live in the Balwyn or Camberwell zones doesn’t need my taxes to fund their childs state school education…

    Government funding of private schools is preferable to making school tuition tax deductible.


  9. M

    I am a huge fan of the intuition, but as the reality becomes closer, I’d like to see a lot more robust debate about the precise mechanism of vouchers.

    My support for vouchers is not all that high falutin’ in terms of justice and so on. More, I think that poor people – but not just the poor – should be able to opt out of the state system, if they are seriously dissatisfied with it for any reason. Currently, only the more well off have that option as the subsidy goes straight to the school, not the citizens.

    I justify this sort of voucher system as if the state were saying:

    OK, if you think you can do a better job than we are, we’ll give you a voucher for the precise amount we currently allocate for each child like yours in the state system. So off you go, and all the best to you. If you make a go of it, maybe we will all learn something.

    Now, of course, the state should be entitled to attach some strings. The main one for me would be that the school chosen by the opting-out parents is not allowed to charge fees beyond the level of the voucher.

    Now, given that at the moment in NSW, per student funding for state high school students is around $14,000, this would mean the voucher could not be used to pay for fees at Ascham, Sydney Grammar, and so on.


  10. Russell – I don’t understand your point.

    If you support funding government schools without any regard for parental income, then effectively wealthy parents are receiving government funding if they send their children to government schools.

    So funding free places for rich kids at schools administered by the government is alright, but all of a sudden if you give the exact same funding for them to attend a non-government school it’s somehow unjust because the poor are subsidising the rich.

    You can’t have it both ways.


  11. ‘if you give the exact same funding for them to attend a non-government school it’s somehow unjust because the poor are subsidising the rich” … to a superior head start in life.
    The present system entrenches inequality. Right-wingers think that’s OK, left-wingers don’t.
    The main objective for social democrats is that kids aren’t disadvantaged at the start of the competitive struggle that is life. Having all kids in the same system may help to even things up.


  12. The main objective for social democrats is that kids aren’t disadvantaged at the start of the competitive struggle that is life. Having all kids in the same system may help to even things up.
    So a badly performing monopoly is preferable to better-performing diversity?

    The lesson of the Latham lurch on schooling is quite a lot of not-rich people send their kids to Scotch, etc.

    Actually, education spending in total is, along with spending on public broadcasting, the most regressive form of spending the Commonwealth does but not because of private school funding. So, I gather it’s no public money for SBS, the ABC and higher education then?


  13. Peter,

    I understand where you are coming from. You object to schools taking government money and then raising entry barriers based on financial means.
    Private schools are fine just so long as they don’t charge extra to keep the riff-raff out.
    The trouble is that a parent who wants a $15K education for their child would have to pay that entire $15K themselves, not the $1K above government level. This penalizes parents who value education highly (lets not pretend that all parents value education equally).
    This would kill the mid-tier private schools, but not the elite since there are those at the elite schools who could/would pay $30K+.


  14. “This penalizes parents who value education highly (lets not pretend that all parents value education equally).”
    True, not all parents value education, but the consumers, if not the purchasers, are the child, and to some extent, the broader community – it’s the child’s and the community’s interests we need to keep in mind.
    “So a badly performing monopoly is preferable to better-performing diversity?”
    I don’t know what the evidence is for this, but I think we have one of the most privatised school systems in the world – do we outperform other more ‘monopolised’ systems? Finland, which is always reported as having the best schools, is one of the monopoly systems, isn’t it? So, maybe state/private isn’t the issue.


  15. M

    As I said, I am still open to the final details. Allow the $14.000 voucher to be spent at a $17,000 school? Maybe. But mot Grammar and Ascham.


  16. M

    You also make the mistake that rich people prepared to fork out a small amount of their wealth mean res ipsa loquitur, the rich place more value on education than the poor buggers who accepts the $17,000 voucher.

    Also, ideally those parents who kick up a stick they can’t use the $14,000 voucher at Ascham and Grammar, ideally would be rounded up, put in the stocks over night, have chokoes thrown at them, and have to pick up papers at Mt.Druitt High School for a week.

    I am the last person who is a market-hating Commie, but I would consider supporting legislation that burnt Scotch College, Ascham, Melbourne Grammar, and Cranbrook to the ground. Some people might be a bit shocked but they’ll get over it – but the net impact on Australia educational standards would be positive.

    Elite private schools in Australia are basically ways of the children of the elite getting to know the children of their friends – the social elite. Burning all these schools down, and forcing the parents to move their kids to the voucher-accepting high schools and other public schools, would be the best thing that happened to this country.

    As for England, if they torched 30 – and preferably 200 – , English society would improve immeasurably.


  17. “do we outperform other more ‘monopolised’ systems? Finland, which is always reported as having the best schools, is one of the monopoly systems, isn’t it? So, maybe state/private isn’t the issue.”

    Actually, our top schools probably do out-peform Finland’s, at least on the international PISA tests. Taking the results by socioeconomic status, our high SES students get better PISA results than Finland’s. Finland does better at the lower SES levels (which of course have most of the people, hence their overall good results).

    Both public and private schools in Australia draw on the same mostly not very good teaching colleges and have strong homogenising forces in curriculum, so some overall convergence in performance by international standards would not be entirely surprising, though I am not sure whether or not this is the case (the government won’t release the data, which is perhaps in itself circumstantial evidence that its schools are under-performing).


  18. Andrew Norton

    What many fail to recognize is that Finland is a society of barely 2 million highly monocultural eel eaters. If people wish to emulate Finland, they need to adcovate shrining Australia’s landmass, turning back most NESB immigrants over the post 30 years, getting rid of the Aborigines, and throw some more mackerel on the barbie during the 6 weeks of sun each year. 😉


  19. I haven’t seen the TIMMS (maths and science) results by class background, but you are right that the US average is higher than the Australian average.


  20. Andrew Norton

    And the stats never speak for themselves. For example, I have two kids, who have been IQ tested well above average; not freaky geniuses, by any manner, but enough for me to insist they be in the top streamed class.

    I am not bragging here, I am just stating a reality. The only reason I got them tested was that one was starting to exhibit behavioral problems in the class room at his unstreamed infants school.

    Originally, the school hauled my wife and I in for an interrogation. As schools no longer conduct IQ tests, we paid quite a bit of money for a clinical psychologist to go through the whole battery of WAIS and one other.

    Given their high scores, the very first thing NAPLAN metric I looked for was what % of my kid’s school and class performed in the top 1 and 2 bands. My reasoning is so long as their are enough kids in those top two bands to fill a whole class or two, then that tells us the school will have an academic culture, and enough academically-interested and motivated children to not only challenge my own kids, but keep them from getting into bored and into mischief. As long as there exists this critical mass at the top, it does not matter so much if the tail slopes off after that, and the average doesn’t work out so high.

    They are both currently still in a local public school. They are very happy, and jump out of bed, and dress for school, without prompting, and I cannot remember the last time I actually had to initiate a conversations about “how was school today, what did you learn”. They initiate the conversation every time.

    To me, those things are the luckiest things in the word a parent could wish for.


  21. My School is unhelpful in that while it compares with other schools, it does not compare with the actual absolute standards established within NAPLAN or the range of results in those bands. Averages can of course be highly misleading, due to distortions caused by outliers.


  22. Andrew, actually, your kids NAPLAN Report places him exactly compared to his class mates, the schools average, the national average, and the “similar” average.

    Select the school you want, then from the lefthand side menu click on “Results in bands”. It really is THE most important metric on the entire site.

    The MySchool website also breaks down for every single school, the % of kids who fell within each of the bands. You can gather an incredib;le amount of data, and build up a very complex picture, especially once you add in the also recorded SES data, and the school’s ICSEA breakdown by quartile. In fact, if you asked a high school kid or uni. Education class to compare and contrast two randomly chosen schools, the MySchool website provides enough data for a mini dissertation.


  23. Andrew

    It actually has a – excuse the French – shitload of fascinating information, none of which is reported in the media, for some bizarre reason (laziness and stupidity, I’d say). I think the whole site is one of the greatest democratic advances in this country for a very long time.

    Remember, the notorious Mt. Druitt High School – “The School We Failed” – exposé a few years ago, which the AEU hammers away as a reason NOT to have this data publicly available?

    Well as a result of the Daily Tele exposé, My.Druitt High was renamed Chifley College. It now only accepts Year 11 and 12 students. The corollary being that the three other high schools in the Mt.Druitt area – Dunheved, Shalvey, Bidwill,- onow only go to Year 10, whereupon they all transfer to Chifley’s Mt.Druitt campus Thus, whereas once before these five separate very close high schools has less than 100 students – sometimes as low as 40 – students going on to Year 12, the Chifley Senior campus now has 419 students, nearly 200 of whom receive the HSC.

    Now with 200 students in a Year of only senior students, the tone would be much more mature, the kids their by choice. The positive impact on morale and attitude must be immense, even though the college’s ICSEA is a woeful 840. But with a critical mass of 200 students, statistically there has to be a few stars, even if nowhere near as many as Balwyn or Killara High.

    And so, the Senior College offers every level of English, including 2Unit Advanced and 3/4 Unit. In the old days, these high schools would have struggled to hold a 2 Unit Advanced class before The Tele expose. Maths is offered at all levels, except the top 4 Unit. All Sciences are offered, and four different beginner’s languages.
    NAPLAN is not offered to Years 11 and 12, so we lack data there.


  24. Now consider one of Chifley Senior College’s four year feeder high school’s – Dunheved High School. MySchool tells us not only that 94% of Dunheved’s parents fall in the bottom quartile of ICSEA, with average at a woeful 840, but the school proudly boasts:

    [Dunheved] is situated on Darug land in the Mt. Druitt District School Education Area and supports the Dharug language revitalisation program and respects Darug ways of knowing, learning and teaching. The campus has an enrolment of 407 students including a Support Unit. Our families come from 24 diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Our students include 20% who identify as Aboriginal, and 14% who identify as Pacific Islander.

    Here we have a suburban Sydney school with an average ICSEA of 840, where 34% of the students are Aboriginal/Islander, and the student attendance rate is a stunningly low 79%, with an annual mobility rate of 25%!!!.

    Dunheved’s scores are a sea of red, with a couple of white. Not one green.

    Now, all of this info is just from the front page of the MySchool website. Tell me, we do not get an extremely sad story of horrible disadvantage, that as a society me need to turn our imagination and taxes to to try to improve the chances of these innocent kids who have been born with the unluckiest roll of the dice. Far from wanting to laugh and tease these kids, I can’t imagine a parent in the land, who would not say, “now, that is not right…those poor kids”.

    What has the AEU been so scared of all these years?


  25. Accountability, Peter.
    I had an excursion to Chifley Senior College as a 3rd year Ed student, and it is quite obvious that huge improvements in the delivery of education have been made in the area as a result of that negative publicity. In fact, that model – where 4 or 5 junior high schools feed into one senior high school – has since become the norm for a large part of Western Sydney (both public and CEO).
    Chifley Senior College is actually located right next door to the local TAFE, so not only do they offer more extension subjects that any of the previously existing high schools, they can offer a wide range of vocational subjects as well. Having a cohort of 400-500 students gives the school so much more flexibility in terms of what courses they can provide.


  26. Cathy

    I could not agree more. And it shows just what a vital part of the democratic process newspapers – even tabloids – are. Does anybody think that the Department of Education and NSW Teacher’s Federation, even to this day, would have lifted a finger but for that Daily Telegraph front-page? Personally, I think the Tele should have been given an award for services to the forgotten and disadvantaged, while the Department and AEU should hand their heads in shame. No wonder, they don’t want data becoming public!


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