Independent public schools – Why competition in public education is a bad thing

THE SLIPPERY SLOPE OF INDEPENDENT PUBLIC SCHOOLS

The current government is committed to creating “independent” public schools, a change to bring more autonomy to around 25% of Australian public schools. A $70 million fund has been set up to make this a reality.

According to Education Minister Christopher Pyne, independent public schools will give principals the autonomy to hire and fire their staff and control more of the school budget.

What is not being talked about is that a brief tour of recent history in other Western countries shows that dividing the public education system in two can be a very slippery slope. It has a tendency lead to negative social consequences and there is a lack of evidence of better student outcomes. So why then is this happening?

BIG IDEAS: TO SUBSIDISE THE SCHOOL OR THE STUDENT?

Influential Chicago economist Milton Friedman wrote more than 60 years ago about how to formulate government policy in education. Friedman’s big idea was that just because education is provided by a government, it does not mean that the forces of competition cannot be useful here too.

Friedman’s suggestion was that governments have a choice, between giving money to schools (to educate our children), and giving money to the parents of children (with which to choose a school). The advantage of the latter, says Friedman, is that schools will have a reason to compete with each other – with a result of greater quality for less money.

For this to work how Friedman intends, public (state-run) schools need to be in competition with other schools – and private schools, with their large annual fees, aren’t competing for the same students.

The way competition is achieved by policymakers is to give money to schools based on how many students they have, whether they are run by the state or whether they are independent – what is sometimes called a “voucher” system, in which parents theoretically have more choice.

In the US they created the competition for public schools by giving out “charters” for non-profit schools to be formed that are independent of the state in many ways, but are still subsidized by the state. In the UK they created “academies” under a similar model with government funding but school independence.

Here in Australia the suggestion is to follow a similar program and make roughly a quarter of the nation’s schools “autonomous”. The motivation in all three cases is the same, a desire to introduce choice and competition into public schooling – and this is where the problem lies.

THE DANGERS OF COMPETITION IN EDUCATION

Whilst superficially appealing, evidence shows that introducing competition to public education can have a raft of undesirable social consequences that are very difficult to undo.

Some of the most harmful effects of introducing competition to public schooling have been identified by researchers as:

1) More pronounced social stratification. Dividing the public school system into autonomous and state-run schools is likely to widen inequality. The case of education in Chile, where a similar system (the first in the world back in 1981) provides an extreme example of the way that competition in public schools can lead to a cycle of widening social inequality.

In Chile, autonomous schools have the ability to select or reject students. In the drive for better results and the development of reputation these schools tend to favour students from wealthier backgrounds that are already achieving better results. Consequently, the 38.5% of students that remain in the fully public system are much more likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds and perform more poorly in national tests.

Further, the idea that parents now have more “choice” in where to send a child with the advent of competition is not as straightforward as it might seem. Will an autonomous school, which is being measured on academic results, spend its advertising budget in a wealthy or a disadvantaged neighbourhood? Does a parent that has the time and money to transport a child long distances have the same amount of “choice” as a parent that does not?

2) Impoverishment of the educational mission. Consider two schools in the US. One is a state-run school, the other a non-profit autonomous charter school. The state school spends their allocated $500 on advertising. The other school spends a full $325,000 on advertising. The autonomous school can do this because they have a different mission to the public school. Their “success” is entirely determined by the number of enrolments they can get and their score on a very limited range of indicators (often standardized tests). The two schools are playing by different rules but are evaluated by the same measures. It serves neither society nor the aims of public education to have schools spending their budgets on advertising or in targeting standardized tests, yet a competitive system encourages such spending.

3) Teacher remuneration and satisfaction. The charter school movement in the US was used as an opportunity to attack unions, with by far the majority of charter schools being non-union. This led to serious fissures within the profession and in many cases led to reduced teacher wages. Charter schools in the US have been shown to have a much greater turnover of staff leading to teachers in these schools with less experience.

4) Exploitation by for-profit entities. In the United States, charter schools are able to enter into agreements with for-profit organisations. This can lead to effective ‘subcontracting’ of education where a school pays a for-profit company to manage the school. Autonomy in schools can also open the door to corporate sponsorship, introducing commercialisation into the early years of schooling – a polluted mental environment in the very place where students are meant to be learning the skills for life.

5) Contentious educational outcomes. For all of this, the educational benefits are from most evidence non-existent. Chrisopher Lubienski, a Professor of Educational Policy with a focus on public and private interests, summarises the situation:

“Advocates argued that autonomy from bureaucratic regulation allows these schools to react to the needs of individual learners and be more effective at their core academic mission as measured by standardised tests… [Yet] Large-scale empirical analyses consistently find that charter schools are no better – and often somewhat worse – than public schools at boosting student achievement, even after controlling for demographic differences in the populations served at different types of schools”

Lubienski is talking about the situation in US charter schools, but the first sentence sounds eerily familiar to anybody listening to the rhetoric around the move towards independent public schools.

IT HASN’T HAPPENED YET, BUT THE RISK IS REAL

Here in Australia, we have a well-respected public system facing a serious change with the move towards independent public schools.

The assurance we are being given by government is that the independent schools policy is simply a way to give more power to principals regards staffing and operations. Whilst a reduction in bureaucracy within schools is welcomed by many there are other ways to achieve this outcome without creating this split between those that are autonomous and those that are not.

The risk we run by creating a division within our public school system is serious. Once a nation heads down the slippery slope of introducing more “choice” and “competition” into public education, the door is left wide open for any well-meaning ideologue to follow the ideas of Friedman.  All that is needed is to keep giving this subset of our public schools ever more autonomy and it will be to the detriment of the system as a whole.

This article is written as a response to Pyne’s claim that “the more autonomous a school, the better the outcomes for students”.