These days, it’s all the fashion to condemn middle class welfare – except when such largesse is enjoyed by relatively well-off parents who educate their children in a government school.
Last week, a friend who lives on Sydney’s lower north shore received a wanted-to-buy letter from a real estate agent. The agent had a client “who is currently looking to buy a 3-4 bedroom house in the North Sydney area”. The potential purchasers have two requirements: first, “they are looking to spend $1.3 to $2 million”. Second, they are “looking to move into the catchment area for North Sydney Demonstration School”.
So the purchasers expect to spend up to $2 million on a house. Good luck to them. And they expect that taxpayers will fund the education of their children virtually free of charge at a well-regarded comprehensive government primary school. After that, the children would still be in the “catchment area” for one or more of the well-regarded government secondary schools on the lower north shore.
If well-off Australians choose to forgo private health insurance and rely on Medicare and the public hospital system, they are required to pay a higher Medicare levy. However, when well-off Australians avoid private education and rely on the government system for the education of their children, there is no financial disincentive of any kind. The taxpayer pays all.
The concept of free education is so ingrained in the Australian national psyche that it is rarely, if ever, challenged. So even the rich can have their children educated for free without economics journalists who bang on about middle class welfare saying a word.
The expert panel headed by David Gonski, whose final report on the Review of Funding for Schooling was recently handed to the Gillard government, did amoxil 500 dosage not tackle this issue. Why? Well, it was not in their terms of reference because this is not a discussable matter. That’s why.
Gonski and his colleagues recommended that “in a new model for funding non-government schools, the assessment of a non-government school’s need for public funding should be based on the anticipated capacity of the parents enrolling their children to contribute financially towards the school’s resource requirements”.
This is a fair point. However, if the parents’ capacity to pay is a relevant criterion when assessing government funding of private schools, why is it irrelevant when assessing the taxpayer funding of government schools?
In other words, why should a person who lives in a $2 million house in North Sydney pay nothing to educate his or her children – while a person of modest means living in a rented flat be required to make a financial contribution to educating their children in the local Catholic primary school or some similar entity?
The question is never answered because it is rarely asked. I made this point some years ago when I received a rare invitation to address a literary festival. The atheist-inclined, sandal-wearing Byron Bay set became most upset when I suggested that in a truly egalitarian society the middle class should make a contribution to the education of their children, perhaps even grandchildren, attending government schools.
The issue of state aid to non-government schools was an issue throughout much of the 20th century. The demand came from Catholics who had established their own separate education system in the late 19th century. A convenient brief account of this controversy can be found in the book A History of State Aid by, among others, Ian R. Wilkinson and published by the Education Department in 2006, when Julie Bishop was the federal minister.
The Catholic campaign achieved two major breakthroughs in the 1960s, when the governing Liberal Party was anxious to ensure preferences from the Democratic Labor Party, which had substantial Catholic support in Victoria and Queensland.
In late 1963, Robert Menzies announced that the Commonwealth would provide all secondary schools with money for science laboratories. Then, in 1967, Henry Bolte’s Liberal government in Victoria provided per capita funding for children attending non-government schools. In time, all non-government schools benefited from these initiatives.
Initially, opposition to state aid came from those opposed to Catholic schools. In more recent times, opponents of state aid have consisted of individuals opposed to non-government schools – sometimes because they oppose religious schools, whether Catholic, Jewish, Muslim or Protestant – and sometimes because they believe government always knows best.
What the critics of the non-government sector overlook is the fact that less well-off parents who make a contribution to their children’s education reduce the financial burden on the taxpayer. Whereas well-off parents who send their children to comprehensive or selective government schools get a free ride on the taxpayer. Not only on Sydney’s lower north shore.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.