Viva the voucher based education revolution
Kevin Rudd needs more Pink Floyd. The Floyd’s classic lyrics from The Wall album denigrate the standard of teachers and curriculum as “just another brick in the wall”.
I’m sure David Gilmour, Roger Waters and other band members would be amazed to learn that thirty years later Australia is attempting an Education Revolution based wholly on bricks in the wall. Okay, maybe I oversimplify it. It’s not just bricks, there’s a range of other building products going into Kevin and Julia’s fabulously named ‘Building the Education Revolution’ program.
Now I don’t mean to overload on dark sarcasm. But isn’t an education revolution far more than bricks and mortar? How about first class curriculum? Higher teacher standards? Modern learning tools? Smaller class sizes? Advancing both the vocational and the academic?
Or, how about a controversial three C’s for our education system – competition, choice and control? These factors, which can empower families, parents and students while encouraging excellence from teachers and schools, seem to be sorely lacking in any current revolutionary discussions.
Choice is a major piece of the puzzle of providing the best education to young Australians.
Providing choice, and thereby greater control for families, requires real competition in the education marketplace.
Families who can afford to choose between an overly bureaucratised government school and a usually more responsive private school have voted with their feet in recent years.
Growth in the non-government school sector has far outstripped growth in public school enrolments over the past decade or so.
The policies of the former Howard Government helped more Australians afford their choice, with lower cost non-government schools proliferating across the country.
But those most in need of choice – people in areas of disadvantage or with low incomes – continue to miss out.
Although a happy product of the public education system myself, in my first speech to the Senate I advocated a system of school vouchers that would give all families their schooling choice. Such a system would see a family’s share of government funding allocated to their chosen school.
Families would make their choices based on whatever particular aspects of education they value, creating a marketplace in which schools would accordingly respond.
There would be clear consequences for schools – rewards for those that deliver results and a necessity to change for those that don’t.
We shouldn’t be afraid of exploring the merits of this system, at least on a trial basis, and at least for disadvantaged families.
Overseas experience shows the strongest supporters of publicly funded vouchers are the disadvantaged: those with most to gain.
Dissatisfaction in public education serves nobody’s interests. It perpetuates a two tier system of haves and have nots.
More significantly it perpetuates social disadvantage. All too often the schools with the worst educational outcomes are in areas with high levels of unemployment, creating a vicious cycle of intergenerational unemployment, welfare dependency and a raft of health or social problems.
If public school parents could choose where the thousands of dollars in government funding provided for each of their children was directed it would empower them to break the cycle of disadvantage.
Local school control would also deliver greater efficiencies, especially compared to the current gross mismanagement of Building the Education Revolution funding by education bureaucrats across Australia.
A voucher system is not a magic wand.
Initial implementation may be costly, which is a challenging prospect in these times of rapidly escalating government debt.
And it may require tailoring to families of difficult income levels to enhance equity and maximise educational outcomes for all students. But trialling vouchers would certainly be more of an education revolution than forcing one size fits all school halls on thousands of schools.
Competition creates choice. It gives control to families over their children’s futures. And it may even free teachers from the constraints of overly bureaucratic systems.
That’s a real revolution, as opposed to Labor’s attempts to style as a revolution a simple building program which, all in all, is just bricks in the wall.
Simon Birmingham is a Liberal Senator for South Australia
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