In recent weeks, state support for private education has been in the news. Journalists have revealed that some Australian private schools receive government funds far in excess of the levels proposed by the Gonski Review, the 2011 inquiry which recommended that, at least as far as the allocation of new funds was concerned, a greater emphasis should be placed on overall school need regardless of sector.
But should the state be in the business of subsidising private schools at all? For radical opponents of subsidies, the answer appears obvious. Public funding for private schools is a contradiction in terms. This is overly simplistic, however. Even if, semantically, we wanted to restrict the word “private” to schools that receive no public money whatsoever—and used some other term to refer to those schools that are independently governed yet receive state funds—we would still be left with the question of whether such funding was warranted.
More significantly, proponents of subsidies have recourse to an ostensibly powerful argument, one that opponents seldom address directly.
I’m not referring here to the claim that private schools save the government money by educating children who would otherwise have to be accommodated by an already overstretched public sector, and are hence owed money as compensation. You may as well as say that the private sector owes the government money by virtue of the fact that public schools save the former money by educating students who the state would otherwise be compelled to ensure private schools educate.
Besides, even if the obligation to ensure that each and every child is appropriately educated did not also fall on the shoulders of private school parents, there is no general duty to pay others for saving you money provided that doing so was an unintended side-effect of their pursuing their own projects. After all, where no sacrifice is made, no compensation is owed. And it is not as if, in educating their pupils, private schools are aiming to lift the burden on the public sector.
Rather, I’m referring to the claim that, as private school parents pay their taxes too, their children are owed a share of public expenditure on education, if not the full share allocated to public school children.
I call this argument ostensibly powerful only because of its practical influence. In reality, it is extremely weak. We do not normally think that, just because you pay your taxes, you are entitled to at least some share of each and every particular line item of government expenditure. If anything, you are entitled to at least some share of each item in some mix of such expenditures, with the composition of that mix depending, to some extent, on need. More to the point, school spending is spending on children, not adults, and thus the notion that private school subsidies might be justified on the basis of tax contribution is entirely misplaced. Children don’t pay taxes.
Most importantly, however, for private school parents to pay their taxes too either entitles their children to a full share of public funding or, potentially at least, no share at all, and the former possibility is incredible.
Were private school students to receive the same government funds as public school students—on the basis that their parents pay no less in taxes, all being equal, than public school parents—then they would be in receipt of unfair advantages. Why? Because each and every one of them would have more spent on their education in total than each and every public school student, which would make a mockery of substantive equality of opportunity, perhaps our most broadly-endorsed political ideal. There is undoubtedly, then, an upward limit on public funding for private schools.
As long as the government is constrained by a requirement not to exacerbate inequalities in opportunity, though, there is no downward limit on public funding either, despite the fact that private school parents pay their taxes too. Where, or as long as, private schools out-perform public schools, government funding should flow to the latter in order not to widen that gap, and private schools are not entitled to any public support as long as it persists.
This does not mean, of course, that there is some absolute prohibition on government funding for private schools. Far from it. Where private schools are among the worst-performing, they too should be prioritised. But the mere fact that private school parents pay their taxes does not, in itself, give us reason to be blind to school and student need.