Give low-income parents a school choice

Glenn Fahey, Blaise Joseph

13 August 2020 | Ideas@theCentre

We have to stop using private schools as a scapegoat for everything wrong with Australian education.

It’s recently been argued that to improve equity non-government schools should receive more public funding, in exchange for giving up the ability to receive fees from parents and select who they enrol.

But neither of these things are responsible for the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Sure, Australia’s school system suffers some inequities, but this is due to differences across post codes rather than school sectors.

Even if all selective, independent, and Catholic schools stopped charging fees or even closed down, , it would simply lead to more high-income families moving to areas with the best government schools (raising local house prices and not improving equity).

Australia is actually more equitable — in terms of the effect of student socioeconomic background on achievement and variance in outcomes within schools — than the OECD average, New Zealand, and some top-performing education systems like Singapore. This is despite the fact that Australia has one of the highest global proportions of students attending non-government schools.

So, fee-charging non-government schools aren’t the cause of inequity, but what about their ability to select their students?

The proposal that all non-government schools should be publicly-funded the same as government schools on the condition they give up control over their enrolments isn’t practical. For faith-based schools — especially the smaller, low-fee ones — flexibility in enrolment selection is essential in reflecting the values of their parent community.

What we need to do is expand school choice for low-income parents, not take away existing choice.

A charter school is one that’s publicly funded, but privately managed — meaning parents can have greater choice without facing the burden of cost. It also means that parents have more of a say in how schools are run, rather than enduring the inflexibility of a bureaucratic government-run school system.

Research from the United States — where charter schools are a popular option — shows they improve educational excellence, efficiency — and yes, equity. And the main beneficiaries of expanded school choice are actually disadvantaged students in normal government schools.

School class warfare isn’t going to help solve inequity. But giving low-income parents more choice will.

This is an edited extract of an opinion piece published in the Sydney Morning Herald as Give low-income parents a school choice: that’s the key to equity.

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