Australia has just had another Federal election where education was a major policy issue. Voters had a choice between two parties both promising to implement the increased funding outlined in the Gonski review. The only difference between the two were the rate at which funding for education would increase, but, what if there was a real alternative for libertarians and conservatives to consider. Is it time for an libertarian education revolution?
The current education revolution dates back to Rudd/Gillard government and the commissioning of the Gonski review. This was in response to Australia’s relative decline in international PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) rankings. Australia has traditionally performed exceptionally well in this ratings, but much like our recent performance at the Olympics, our relative rating has been dropping. In 2000, only one country outperformed Australia in reading and scientific literacy, and only two outperformed Australia in mathematical literacy. But by 2009, six countries outperformed Australia in reading and scientific literacy, and 12 had students who were better at maths.
More concerningly, recent significant increased investment in education has not resulted in significant improvements in education outcomes. According to the Department of Education and Training, Since 2005, “Commonwealth spending for schools has increased by 97 per cent in nominal terms. That’s a growth in spending on schools that is 47 per cent more than economic growth” If simply more funding were the answer to Australia’s education woes, we would be seeing significant improvement in our Naplan and PISA results. We aren’t. The response by conservatives to the education sector’s demands for more funding has been to offer a watered down version of Gonski and talk about increased principal autonomy. By vacating this space, the Liberal National Coalition have failed to offer parents a true alternative to ever increasing funding for the existing education system. This has allowed Labor and the Greens to own the education policy space. What then is the libertarian alternative?
Two policy initiatives that define the libertarian education alternative are: vouchers and charter schools. Both reduce the role of government departments and hand control over to parents and local communities.
Vouchers were originally popularised by Milton Friedman in his television series, ‘Free to Choose’ over 30 years ago. The idea is a simple one, children from disadvantaged families would be given a voucher to attend a private school in their area. Ironically, the Gonski reforms makes vouchers more feasible because of its move to funding schools on a ‘per student’ basis. The families that would most benefit from this would be those outside the catchment areas of good state schools, and instead could vote with their feet and choose to attend a local private school.
Advocates of the state education system hate the idea of vouchers because they see it as taking funding from the state school system. However, as we have previously discussed increased funding to the existing system has not improved school performance. Why should poor families only get a choice between several underperforming state schools or paying in full private school fees.This is the reality in our outer suburbs. No ‘I give a Gonski’ bumper sticker is going to change that. By comparison, middle class families often have a choice between good state schools and excellent private schools. Poorer families are barred from good state schools by catchment areas. It’s easy to be virtuous about the qualities of state schools when your child goes to a good state school paid for by the taxpayer.
The second part of the libertarian education revolution is charter schools. Charter schools allow some state schools to become de facto independent schools that are run under a charter rather than by the education department. Free from the constraints of the Education Department the school and its local community are free to experiment with different teacher methods and curriculums. Some will succeed and some will fail. Just like every other market, education should include a wide variety of choice for students and their families. Again, advocates of the existing system will argue that giving parents choice is dangerous and some students might be disadvantaged. This completely ignores the fact that if Naplan results are to be believed our current state school system and the national curriculum fails thousands of students every year already. Giving parents and communities real choice and control over education will hopefully result in better outcomes for these students.
At the beginning of this article I asked, ‘is it time for a libertarian education revolution?’ Based on the evidence of the last decade the answer is, ‘yes’. Australia cannot afford to continue to invest ever more money into a failing system. If education funding is to continue to increase more than our GDP Australians deserve a return on that investment. The past decade would suggest increased centralised control will not deliver those returns. It’s time for an libertarian education revolution.
Justin Campbell is on the executive committee of LibertyWorks.