True schooling choice for
their kids – that is what parents want. And tax credits could give it to them. With increasing numbers opting for non-government schools, including Catholic schools, the demand is there and there is also the
question of justice, says The Centre for Independent Studies in its latest report. Chris Hook writes.
Parents should be in charge of where their children are educated for reason of
parental rights and the very quality of the education their children receive, says policy analyst Jennifer Buckingham.
School choice, she says, “exists when all families have the freedom and the means to
choose the school that best meets their needs”.
And she recommends a different form of funding, a tax credit system, to create the freedom and means.
Ms Buckingham’s observations are in Families,
Freedom and Education, a policy monograph she prepared for the free-market policy research institute, the Centre for Independent Studies, for whom she is a policy analyst with the Taking Children Seriously research
True choice does not exist in Australia’s current education system, because parents are limited to choosing between fully publicly funded state schools, partially publicly funded non-government
schools and unfunded home schooling, she says.
And this system is unsatisfactory because the enrolment in the non-government system is growing rapidly while public school enrolments are “stagnating”.
Countering those who do not believe non-government schools should be state funded, Ms Buckingham says this meant that “choice of school should be restricted to those who can afford to pay for their children’s
education twice – once through taxation and again through tuition fees”.
Resistance to school choice is strong, she says, because it is argued that choice will result in “inequity and social injustice”.
The author demolishes the notion that enrolments in non- government schools are driven by the wealthy, showing that in 1996, a quarter of families with children in non-government schools had lower than average
This included almost 40 per cent of systemic Catholic school students.
Yet – again according to the 1996 census – “more than half of the 337,000 children whose household income exceeded
$78,000 attended state schools”.
Even under the most recent funding arrangements, students in non-government schools receive “significantly less in public subsidies than students in a state school”.
Catholic Education Office head Br Kelvin Canavan made a similar point recently (CW 30/9) when he noted that only 8.1 per cent of state government funding went to non-government schools.
The monograph claims
each non-government enrolled student saves the state government some $4,000.
Quite obviously school funding, as it stands, is not equitable. And despite the fact that both sectors spend similar amounts per
student, Buckingham cites studies showing better educational results from students in the non-government sector.
But the issues of state funding and state provision of education should not be confused –
education is both a private and a public good.
Educated citizens benefit all of society so there is an argument that the state should fund education, but it does not follow that the state should provide that
Despite the education of children constituting a public good, the welfare of children must be the primary concern. Parents should be able to make what they believe to be the best choices for their
children, and not be “restricted to schooling by the state in the name of the public interest”.
The answer, for Ms Buckingham, lies in giving parents real choice about their children’s education. And choice
can be implemented with the right funding system – the funding of students rather than schools. She proposes a system of tax credits.
In this system, parents would pay for their child’s education and then
have the cost deducted from their annual income tax payment. If a couple had a tax burden of $12,000 per year, had two children and received a tax credit of $6,000 per child for education, then they would pay no
Ms Buckingham details several different models, but common to all is the idea of the bursary so that parents would have the funds when necessary.
Through tax credits, parents would be free to
send their children to whatever school they deemed to be most appropriate. If the school did not perform, they would lose the student and the funds the student carried with them.
Among the benefits cited are
increased accountability of schools to parents and the public, increased parental participation and satisfaction and the building of community as parents become more involved with their children’s schools, greater
autonomy of schools to use techniques that work and greater employment opportunities and rewards for good teachers.
However, Jennifer Buckingham acknowledges several pitfalls and offers solutions.
Instability of funding for example, may be rectified by making the tax credit redeemable at only one school per year.
Quality control might be addressed through national determined benchmarks.
admits the idea might seem radical, but says parents would be receptive if they were aware of the issues.
“Imposing school choice on unwilling parents is indefensible,” she says.
“But much of the
apparent reluctance to support change is arguable due to the myths about public education that have gone unchallenged, gained authority and become conventional wisdom.
“Armed with the facts, parents are more
likely to acknowledge the basic principles of school choice and to understand and welcome what it could mean for them and their children.”
Families, Freedom and Education by Jennifer Buckingham,
100pp, $21.90; available from the Centre for Independent Studies. Tel (02) 9438 4377