We don’t need no education… Why State funds private schools (re: @JaneCaro) #atheism

When I was younger, I argued with street preachers and door-knockers.  I loved to watch the way they could hold irreconcilable beliefs and yet assert them all forcefully and with a straight face.  The artifices of language held up by Escheriffic scaffolding loomed like a Tower of Babel: surely such batshittery must be an affront to the gods.  Most of the claims advanced were either unsupported or unsupportable.  Where were the rocks upon which God would build His church?

As I grew older, I realised that there were some catastrophic problems on my atheistic side of the fence.  Positivists roamed free, mingling with science fetishists and other carriers of diseased thought (A = A!!  The world is directly engaged by the seeeeeenses! A = A!!!!).  At every point of my engagement with the door-knockers and the street preachers, I could dismiss the problem as: ‘We just fundamentally disagree about the nature of the world.’  But with other atheists?  The same escape clause didn’t work.

Few places is this problem more clear than the issue of private schooling in Australia.  I’m a fan of religious education in schools for a lot of reasons: it makes religious education mainstream (thus making it harder for fringe lunatics to preach hate in the pulpit), it means people educated in religious schools have to be taught science properly, it means the State can punish religious schools who preach and forget to teach.  State funding is a firm leash on a potentially wild animal.

In a lengthy exchange with Jane Caro, we discussed the issue and kept coming back to the same mantras about private education in Australia.  Because private schools weren’t strictly secular (whatever that means), they shouldn’t receive taxpayer funds.  Private schools exclude (and, though I pointed out that some public schools do as well, it was correctly rebutted that they probably shouldn’t).  Private schools entrench class differences based on parents’ ability to pay.  Private schools are run by the Church.

As an example, Caro noted the excellent US system which Constitutionally divorces religion from the curriculum.  Speaking of the US system, has anybody seen Waiting for Superman? (Note the table in the trailer which puts Australian kids at number 9 in the world for competency with maths, with the US at 25).

I’m not suggesting that religious education makes kids better at maths.  I am suggesting that handwaving the US system as the gold standard to which we should be aspiring is a bit wonky.  The American system is fundamentally broken and the approach championed by the haters of the private education system will result in similar structural problems.

But let’s start way back at the beginning.  This is, as I’m sure everybody would agree, an argument about principles more than evidence.  If it were about evidence, one would merely point to our great education outcomes and say: the system of public and private seems to be working, so why change it?

The basic principle is that every kid in Australia deserves an education.  We can either couch it in obnoxious rights language: ‘Every kid has the right to an education’.  Or we can put it in more sophisticated virtue politics tones: ‘An ideal society would enable all children in that society to receive the best education which meets their needs.’

So how do you ensure that every kid gets an education?  You could start by building schools, filling them with teachers, and then allocating children to those schools by lottery.  Kids in less population dense areas wouldn’t need a lottery because they’d only be able to support one school.  So that’s buildings and teachers, but what about resources?  Should there be one Bunsen burner per student or should the Bunsen burners go to where they’d deliver better outcomes?  If a Bunsen burner out in regional Australia can only meet the needs of 5 students, wouldn’t it be better to put it in a city school where it can meet the needs of 15?  Given that there aren’t infinite resources, how do you divide the resources up between schools?

What about kids with multicultural needs?  Should Caro’s Extremely Secular High School provide prayer rooms for Muslim students?  Should school cafeterias include kosher and halal food?  Her exact words were: ‘I’d like to see them purely secular‘.  It’s unclear.

Do you know who should be able to choose the sort of educational environment for their children?  Parents.  If parents want their kids to do the International Baccalaureate instead of the Victorian Certificate of Education, who should stop them?  If parents think that their kids will be better served by technical education rather than scholarship, why should they be denied?

Because the options aren’t infinite, it makes sense to have a co-contribution system.  If parents want special education desires fulfilled, they can help make up the financial difference.  The question then becomes: why should parents be expected to meet all the costs of their children’s education?

We’ve already agreed that the State should facilitate the education of every child.  In some sense, we recognise that there’s a duty of the Government to support every student.  Why does that duty cease to exist the moment the child walks through the gates of a private school?

In a fair and egalitarian society, taxpayer funds follow the student to subsidise their parents’ choices.  The only way to disagree with that is to say that parents should be denied the right to choose academic outcomes for their child and that the State knows best.

Despite having this discussion a few times, nobody’s agreed to assert that final point.  Their argument, instead, is:

1.  Religion is bad.

2. Separation of Church and State (whatever that is).

C. The State shouldn’t be funding private schools because they’re religious and OMG Separation, Separation, Separation.

But that just delays the question.  Why shouldn’t parents be able to choose religious education for their children?  I’m an atheist and I really cannot see any problem with a parent deciding that religious education is the best option for their child.  I also can’t see why the State should be allowed to drop the ball when it comes to that child’s education just because the parents want a religious education.

The ideal education model isn’t difficult to envisage.  The State allocates a certain amount per student which follows them to wherever their parents decide is best.  If that place is a private school, the private school requests fees from that parents to make up the difference between the amount made up from students and the amount it actually costs to run a school.  Each public school would get a block grant based on a few specific factors (location, for example, would mean public schools with fewer students in regional areas would need larger block grants).  Simple.

So apart from the rabid animosity of New Atheists to religion, what argument is there against State funding of private schools?  None.

(By way of disclaimer: I received a scholarship to go to a private school.)

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7 thoughts on “We don’t need no education… Why State funds private schools (re: @JaneCaro) #atheism

  1. What argument is there against State funding of private schools?

    In 2009 Canberra Grammar School made a net profit of $500 000 and had over 14 Million in assets. On the other side of town, my Year 10s spent months selling fundraising chocolates to buy an interactive white board, raising the number of boards in classrooms for Years 8, 9 and 10, to the grand total of 2.

    Your argument focuses on religion and completely ignores need.

    I agree that Government has the responsibility to support every student, but monetary support should be based on need. Current levels of funding are offering unnecessary support to schools that are thriving financially, while public schools are in dire need of basic resources.

    • I can point to struggling private schools which have resorted to leasing facilities in order to diversify income streams.

      The underfunding of public schools isn’t related to the public/private debate. It’s down to the bizarre federal system of putting education funding in the hands of state/territory governments. State governments are incompetent, and the sooner we abolish them, the better.

  2. I agree with Lisa that funding should be based on need. There are certainly private schools, usually the old established ones, that have so many assets they do not need funding for infrastructure. I know because family members attend such schools.

  3. Market based mechanisms fail to produce an efficient outcome in education because the consumer is not the same person as the purchaser. Considering equity makes it even more problematic, as co-contribution becomes purchasing a child’s future and entrenches class differences based on parents’ ability to pay. And then once you get to university, the difference in funding structure exacerbates the problem.

  4. “But let’s start way back at the beginning.  This is, as I’m sure everybody would agree, an argument about principles more than evidence.  If it were about evidence, one would merely point to our great education outcomes and say: the system of public and private seems to be working, so why change it?”

    Because the system isn’t ‘great’ for everyone. I’d point to (public) schools that are chronically underfunded, where students can’t learn even if they want to. I’d point out that schools in many Aboriginal communities are a joke. I’d point out that my parents spent more than they could afford sending me to a private school because of the poor outcomes, high rate of violence/suicide and overcrowding at the local public schools. As things stand, students at public schools are getting the short end of the stick. There are exceptions, but they’re mostly well-funded selective schools or purportedly public schools that charge fees.

    “The basic principle is that every kid in Australia deserves an education.  We can either couch it in obnoxious rights language: ‘Every kid has the right to an education’.  Or we can put it in more sophisticated virtue politics tones: ‘An ideal society would enable all children in that society to receive the best education which meets their needs.’”

    I think this is a bit disingenuous (not the basic principle, that’s great, of course). I could easily re-frame it: “We can either couch it in simplistic virtue politics tones: ‘It is good for every kid to be educated’.  Or we can put it in more sophisticated rights language: ‘All children have the right to receive the best education which meets their needs.’” The problem here isn’t rights language, it’s the simplistic formulation. I don’t think the sophisticated response is very different in terms of the conclusion. There is, though, the problem of justifying virtue ethics/politics claims in a non-circular way (‘Good people do good things because they’re good people, which we know because they do good things’).

    “Do you know who should be able to choose the sort of educational environment for their children?  Parents.  If parents want their kids to do the International Baccalaureate instead of the Victorian Certificate of Education, who should stop them?  If parents think that their kids will be better served by technical education rather than scholarship, why should they be denied?”

    What if parents want their children to receive an education that doesn’t include anything about religion? Or, conversely, that doesn’t include anything else?

    “Because the options aren’t infinite, it makes sense to have a co-contribution system.  If parents want special education desires fulfilled, they can help make up the financial difference.  The question then becomes: why should parents be expected to meet all the costs of their children’s education?
    We’ve already agreed that the State should facilitate the education of every child.  In some sense, we recognise that there’s a duty of the Government to support every student.  Why does that duty cease to exist the moment the child walks through the gates of a private school?”

    You’ve already argued that part of the process of allocating funds includes putting them where they’re needed. If some students are getting immense support from their parents, why should they receive money that could be better spent on students who don’t have parents who can afford to pay?

    “In a fair and egalitarian society, taxpayer funds follow the student to subsidise their parents’ choices.  The only way to disagree with that is to say that parents should be denied the right to choose academic outcomes for their child and that the State knows best.”

    This is too simplistic. A society with only public education could have multiple types of schools and a variety of programs within them. I can’t speak to the efficacy, but the German system works like this. There are schools focussed on technical skills, on scholarship and so on. In such a society, parents could still choose which sorts of schools are best for their children without having a system in which the children of the wealthy get a better education bought for them.

    “Despite having this discussion a few times, nobody’s agreed to assert that final point.  Their argument, instead, is:
    1.  Religion is bad.
    2. Separation of Church and State (whatever that is).
    C. The State shouldn’t be funding private schools because they’re religious and OMG Separation, Separation, Separation.”

    Only if they’re a simplistic atheist; there are reasons for opposing private schooling that have nothing to do with religion.

    “The ideal education model isn’t difficult to envisage.  The State allocates a certain amount per student which follows them to wherever their parents decide is best.  If that place is a private school, the private school requests fees from that parents to make up the difference between the amount made up from students and the amount it actually costs to run a school.  Each public school would get a block grant based on a few specific factors (location, for example, would mean public schools with fewer students in regional areas would need larger block grants).  Simple.”

    Obviously, I would disagree that this is ideal, or even close to being so. If all students are allocated the same base amount, we are still saying that parents with more money get to buy better educational outcomes for their children.

    “So apart from the rabid animosity of New Atheists to religion, what argument is there against State funding of private schools?  None.”

    Really? I think you can do better than that.

    • It does not seem contradictory for me to affirm my post and to also state that the amount of funding (in the form of the block grant) should be increased. In fact, that’s entirely consistent. I’d also be happy to see the amount per student increased so that costs for parents was reduced.

      That seems to cut away most of your response. Public schools aren’t underfunded because private schools exist. Public schools are underfunded because states are incompetent and aren’t prioritising education.

      That seems to leave the largest of your points: ‘If some students are getting immense support from their parents, why should they receive money that could be better spent on students who don’t have parents who can afford to pay?’

      This position is only possible if you think that the State only has a responsibility for the education of the children of poor parents. It also means that parents have to contribute more, reducing the amount of choice available for parents on the margin between being able to afford private school and not.

      • “It does not seem contradictory for me to affirm my post and to also state that the amount of funding (in the form of the block grant) should be increased. In fact, that’s entirely consistent. I’d also be happy to see the amount per student increased so that costs for parents was reduced.”

        Sure – I think most non-libertarians think schools should get more funding.

        “That seems to cut away most of your response. Public schools aren’t underfunded because private schools exist. Public schools are underfunded because states are incompetent and aren’t prioritising education.”

        But public schools are also allowed to lag behind because the wealthy and influential don’t send their children there, but rather to private or the few (but high-profile) successful public schools. Thus, no-one really raises a fuss about the poor quality of most public schools.

        “That seems to leave the largest of your points: ‘If some students are getting immense support from their parents, why should they receive money that could be better spent on students who don’t have parents who can afford to pay?’

        This position is only possible if you think that the State only has a responsibility for the education of the children of poor parents.”

        I don’t think that’s right. The State is responsible for lots of things, but frequently allows private entities to ‘carry the load’. For example, the State has a responsibility for the health of its citizens, but permits the operation of private hospitals; the State has a responsibility to ensure personal safety and property are maintained, but also permits the operation of private security companies. Now, State facilities and institutions are still available, but that doesn’t mean that the State needs to subsidise those private entities (though it sometimes does). It doesn’t mean that the State has no responsibility regarding the health of wealthy citizens, but rather that the State allows wealthy citizens to establish a private health system that operates above or alongside the public system. To my mind, the State shouldn’t be paying for that; likewise, the State shouldn’t be funding private schools, but rather building a more robust, flexible public system.

        “It also means that parents have to contribute more, reducing the amount of choice available for parents on the margin between being able to afford private school and not.”

        Parents wouldn’t be forced to contribute anything, unless they want specific types of private education. And that kind of reduction of choice doesn’t seem particularly problematic to me, since it looks to me to have an underlying assumption that private is necessarily better.

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