Thursday, 15 September 2011

Public funding of private education?

Reading the paper yesterday, I noticed this article detailing some of the findings of the OECD’s annual Education At A Glance (EAG) report. The EAG report surveys the 34 member countries of the OECD regarding their education systems looking at achievement, equal opportunity and funding, amongst a myriad of other issues. However, what caught my eye was the amount of government money spent per child attending private educational institutions. A quick glance at the numbers in the report shows that in 2008, the Australian government spent US$7,101 per student in public schools, which was lower than OECD average of US$8,111, but also spent US$4,719 per student who attended private school, a figure slightly higher than the OECD average of US$4,572. Now, that appears to be an awfully large amount to spend on those who have decided that they do not want to participate in the public education system. It’s not as if this was a small minority of students, over 30% of Australian primary and secondary school students are in private education – the OECD average is roughly 10%.

Free, universal public education is one of a developed societies truly great achievements. In principle, public education ought to provide all children, irrespective of their socio-economic background, with equal opportunity upon entering the workforce. This dovetails with public education’s other key aim – to provide a literate and able workforce in order to maintain economic growth. However, in practice, the egalitarian aims of public education often do not materialise. Numerous studies have shown that socio-economic background (especially parental levels of education) does affect educational achievement in public schools. Furthermore, the existence of private schools, which in a majority of countries have higher levels of achievement than their public school counterparts, serves to remove the egalitarian outcome public education strives to achieve.

In no way is this a call for the removal of private education. Choosing to educate a child privately rather than through a public education system is a right that cannot be infringed upon by government legislation – unless it can be shown that the private education is detrimental to a child’s development and opportunities in life (a rarity given the good standing of most private schools). However, once the choice to remove a child from the public education system has been made, there should be no public funding of that child’s education. There is the argument that government cannot pick and choose who receives support, a point I agree with vehemently, except in cases such as education, where there is a publicly funded system and a conscious decision to not participate in it has been made.

The decision to enter private schooling is often based on assessment of local schools and the realisation that local public schools are inferior to the private alternatives. Government should not be spending money supporting this state of affairs; instead the money spent on private education ought to be reinvested into improving the public education system. However, In the current climate of cutbacks and penny-pinching in public offices, if there were to be a reduction in public spending on private education, in any OECD country –only the USA (US$675) and Chile (US$1,840) spend less than US$2,000 per pupil – any cuts are unlikely to be reinvested.