It is Unconscionable to give Public money to Private schools

Presentation at the 4th Annual Wattle Day Luncheon, 1st September 2009 by Jane Caro.

“By their fruits you shall know them.”  (Matthew 7: 15-16)

The final test of whether 30 years of investing public money in private schools has been unconscionable or not is to look at whether that investment improved our education system as a whole. Not just for our most privileged students, but for everyone.

So what exactly have we got in return for our money in terms of retention, results, equity and choice?



According to data from the NSW Department of Health, Year 12 retention rates have largely stalled and in some states have slipped backwards. We know leaving school early has a very negative effect on a young person’s life chances, particularly on employment prospects and earnings. Given our poor achievement in this area, no wonder there is so much nervous talk about raising the school leaving age.


But what about the results of the kids who do stay at school? Given the billions we have invested, surely they are improving?

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, on the 22nd of June this year, in a major speech in the US, Federal Education Minister, Julia Gillard, ‘fessed up about how poorly our students are doing, even, apparently, the best of them. Our performance at the higher levels of achievement is static or declining. And our persistent tail of low achievement, associated mostly with socio-economic disadvantage, is too long. In a nutshell she continued: our results could be summarised as performing satisfactorily, but could be doing better, especially at the bottom of the class. What class could she mean? Social class, perhaps?

Yet, only two days before Gillard’s speech, the SMH ran the following headline on the front page: Wealthy schools win cash bonanza. According to the article: Sydney’s wealthiest private schools are being given as much as $3 million each from the Federal Government’s schools building program while making annual surpluses of up to $3.6 million. The bonus is on top of the $13 million in government funding some already receive. Students in the elite private schools mentioned in the article – Cranbrook, Malek Fahd Islamic School, SCEGGS Redlands, and Kings – already   enjoy results and retention rates far above the national average (but, according to Gillard, not above the international one). If these schools need such huge sums – presumably to improve their static or declining results – surely really low achieving schools need even more help? 

But they are not going to get it. Public high schools, even those struggling to shorten Gillard’s long tail, will receive a maximum of $200,000 from the BER stimulus package. No wonder public school students refer to themselves as attending the pov schools (that’s short for ‘poverty’). 

So, what sort of return on our 30 year investment is this? It doesn’t appear to be improving results at all, even in the private schools that are so lavishly funded.

Worse, it doesn’t sound like our investment is being distributed very equitably either.


According to researcher, Barbara Preston, in 1996, for every13 students from low income families in the playgrounds of our public high schools there were 10 students from high income backgrounds. By 2006, this already unconscionable ratio had risen to 16 low income students to every 10 high income students.

To put that another way, 26 per cent of students in Independent schools are from high income households, compared to 16 per cent at Catholic schools and a terrifying 8 per cent at Government schools.

Even more unconscionably, some teachers and principals are starting to talk about an emerging “de facto apartheid”. In a recent survey, public school principals expressed their concern about an increasing concentration of indigenous kids in public schools and a corresponding flight of white kids to other schools, especially in rural areas.

But it is in investment in capital works that the fruits of our 30 years of public funding of private schools shows up most starkly. Educational economist, Adam Rorris, has demonstrated that the amount the UK and the US invest in capital works for their public (government run and open to all) schools has been line ball with what Australia invests in capital works for its private schools. Our public schools languish many, many millions of dollars below them in investment. An indication that public funding of private schools has directly – and negatively – impacted on the corresponding investment we are willing to make in our public system.


Much noise is currently being generated about the fact that not all private schools are as rich as the elite schools. Indeed, private school advocates often argue that many are just as under-resourced and under-funded as some schools in the public system. Yet, if sending your child to a fee-charging school is a choice, as such advocates also claim, then why on earth would parents freely choose to send their children to crappy, run down private schools? Either such parents have rocks in their heads, or – and I suspect this is much more likely – the nearby public schools are even more under-funded, under-resourced, run-down and neglected.

So what does it say about the effect our three decades of investment have had on choice when the only one many families can afford to make is between two neglected, unsatisfactory schools?

I have never been able to understand how the under-funding and undermining of our public schools can enhance anyone’s choice.


Most parents never have had and never will have much choice of schools. If you are on an average income and have more than one child, it remains very expensive to send your children to private schools – even the so-called ‘low fee’ ones. 

Even for better off parents, private school fees are hard to find.  In fact, they may well be the best contraceptive ever invented. 

Yet surely the billions taxpayers have poured into private schools has kept their fees lower and therefore made them more accessible to a wider range of families? Trouble is, elite schools remain desirable precisely because they are hard to get into. It is the kids Cranbrook rejects that make Cranbrook the best!

Unlike other countries that publicly subsidise private schools (and there aren’t many) Australia’s subsidies are not tied to fees. Indeed, in 2006, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that elite private schools had increased their fees by as much as 53.4% over the last 4 years.

After all, the market will charge what the market will bear. As we have seen with the child care rebate, the health rebate and the first home buyers’ scheme, whenever governments subsidise private provision, they simply deliver a windfall to the private providers, who – as sensible business people – immediately raise their price by the level of subsidy. That’s why vouchers, differential vouchers, tax credits et al are not a solution. Giving huge sums of public money to private schools is not only unconscionable, then, it drives up the price and so is economically stupid. 

The problem with parental choice, particularly driven by league tables, is that everyone chooses the same schools. Parents already sleep in playgrounds of desirable public schools to get on the waiting list. They already pay non-refundable deposits merely to stay on the waiting list for desirable private schools. Parents have been prosecuted for offering bribes to teachers to get their children into selective public schools. And real estate values in suburbs surrounding public schools with a good reputation already effectively discriminate against those on lower incomes.

What we really do when we attempt to give parents choice is to give some schools choice over which kids they will and won’t enroll. And it is hardly surprising that the most desirable schools enroll the most desirable students. The poor, the smelly, the troubled and the troublesome are lumped into the designated loser school in the area. And both ends of the spectrum then become self-perpetuating. 

So, by what fruits shall we judge 30 years of funding private schools?

Retention rates have stalled and may be slipping backwards.

Results are static or declining, are predicated on social class and we have one of the largest gaps in the OECD between our highest and lowest performing students.

Unconscionably, we seem to be using our public funding to exacerbate that gap rather than narrow it. 

And we are only giving more choice to those who already have lots of it. Worse, we appear to be prioritising the right of better-off  parents to their personal choice of school over the right of our poorest and most vulnerable children to an excellent and properly funded education.

Maybe you can make all that sit comfortably with your conscience, but I can’t.


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