Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

Market, Choice and Public Good in School Education

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

Market, Choice and Public Good in School Education

Article excerpt

The view that the 1990s have seen a sharp shift to a market approach in Australian school education is challenged. In reality, governments have moved within a relatively narrow range in public policy over the last quarter of the 20th century. A framework for the first decade of the 21st century to achieve a better balance of enduring values such as liberty (choice), equality (equity), fraternity (access), efficiency (resources) and economic growth (adequacy) will require a new settlement on the concept of `public good'. The notion of a `third way', or even a `fourth way', is canvassed, with New Labour in England providing the marker for what may unfold.

Those critics of contemporary public policy in school education who describe that policy in market terms (the market critique) have merit where their argument is directed against the view that the ills of the sector can be cured through an exclusive and unconstrained resort to a free market. However, despite the rhetoric of government in some instances and the stridency of critics in a range of publications, such a solution has never been evident in the realisation. Indeed, governments have tended to move in a narrow range as they attempt to balance the application of a more or less consistent set of values in a time of social transformation not experienced since the industrial revolution.

In Australia, the critique has gathered momentum in recent years, especially with the trend to self-managing schools, the shrinking of central bureaucracies, and the decentralisation of budgets to the school level so that resources follow the student. Three decades of increasing support from the public purse for non-government schools have combined with a regime of closure and amalgamation of government schools to add weight to the view that the market holds sway. The critique was particularly agitated in relation to developments in Victoria during the years of the Kennett Government from 1992 to 1999.

This paper has five parts. The first examines the realities of the market, demonstrating the narrow range of public policy in recent decades. The second employs a framework of values in public policy to show that what has been described as a market solution that undermines a sense of public good is, in reality, a sensible and timely balance of enduring values. The third provides a brief review of research on the impact of recent reforms, and highlights frailty in the argument of studies that purport to show harm in the shift to self-management. The fourth shifts the focus to the impact of choice. The fifth develops the case for a new view of public good that maintains a commitment to core values, the outcome being a new paradigm for policy in the century ahead. Victoria is selected for illustration, with findings drawn from research in other settings, national and international, as the case for a new paradigm is built.

The common ground with the critics is the case for higher levels of resources for schools, but denial of choice, together with insistence on exclusive funding from the public purse, is a prescription for the continued and inexorable decline of the government school.

The realities of the market

The market critique in school education takes the following form. The introduction of self-managing schools in the public sector has meant that almost all of the resources required for the operation of the school are decentralised for local decision making, so that the money literally follows the student. Declining numbers of students and closure or amalgamation in some communities have meant that schools compete with each other for students and hence resources. The situation has been accentuated by a reduction in public funds for government schools in some states, and increasing reliance on private funds to maintain services and be competitive. Such developments have occurred against a backdrop of increasing public funding for non-government schools. …

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