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.)