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How Do School Choice and Funding Work in Australia?

Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj is an associate professor at Seton Hall University. She's the author of the book Unaccompanied Minors and her research has been featured in popular outlets like The New York Times and the Huffington Post. She's spending the year as a visiting researcher at Australia's University of Sydney, so she'll explore how issues of school choice, rural education, and teacher recruitment get tackled down under. Today she's joined by coauthors Meghan Stacey, a lecturer at the University of New South Wales, and Matthew A.M. Thomas, an American senior lecturer at the University of Sydney.

School choice is an enduring topic of debate in the United States. At last count, a full six percent of all students enrolled in public schools in the U.S. (roughly three million students) were attending a charter school and another 6.7 percent attended magnet schools. Moreover, forty-six states and the District of Columbia have open enrollment policies, and private school voucher programs are in place in fourteen states and Washington, D.C.

Concerns about schools of choice "cream skimming," along with opposition to the use of public tax dollars to fund schools operating outside of the traditional district structure (in the case of charter schools) and to fund private schools (in the case of voucher programs) are among the most hotly contested issues. Choice critics also fear the consequences of policies that facilitate families' departure from neighborhood public schools and the impacts on the students "left behind."

Despite a large body of empirical work attempting to elucidate the effects of school choice policies on student achievementschool segregationteacher labor markets, and school resourcesamong other questions, a lack of consensus remains about whether school choice policies are, on balance, a positive educational innovation, particularly in terms of achieving educational equity.

School choice is similarly controversial in Australia, although the policies themselves and therefore the content of the debates about choice are somewhat different. In Australia, a relatively large, publicly subsidized, and fee-charging "private" or "non-government" sector of schools, most of which have religious affiliations, exists alongside those run by state departments of education. Today, some 34 percent of all students attend private schools, with an even higher proportion in the secondary setting, at around 41 percent.

Private schools have operated in Australia since its colonial period (1788-1901), at the end of which "free, compulsory, and secular" legislation was passed in most colonies and public funding was withdrawn. However, there has been a gradual and incremental reintroduction of state aid to private schools since the 1960s, resulting in a complex and divisive situation wherein fee-charging private schools may receive large amounts of public funds (primarily from the federal government).

The provision of public financial support for private schools has been met with considerable pushback despite having been advocated at different times by both of the major political parties. This rather messy situation was the subject of a large study in 2010 known popularly as the Gonski Review. The report based on the study's findings recommended greater clarity in funding procedures as well as substantial funding increases according to "need" and across sectors. Since the election of the center-right Liberal-National coalition to government in 2013, however, a series of modified arrangements have come into play instead, including another injection of funding for non-government schools as well as a second study to examine how school funding "should be used."

The differentiation of public schools is another component of an Australian school system increasingly defined by the provision of "choice." For instance, in the state of New South Wales (NSW), home to the city of Sydney, there has been substantial growth in the number of public selective or specialized schools for which students must pass a test or other entrance requirement. Many states have also seen a partial "de-zoning" of public schools, enabling choice within the public school sector as well. Not surprisingly, there has been a steady expansion of the private school sector (in terms of overall student enrollment) in the period since public subsidies started (although this has slowed somewhat since 2015).

Like in the U.S., equity arguments take center stage in public discussions about the merits and drawbacks of Australia's school choice policies. For example, private school enrollment rates are not evenly distributed across school-age children in Australia. Public secondary schools enroll roughly 59 percent of all students, yet they enroll 67 percent of students with language backgrounds other than English, 77 percent of students with disabilities, 77 percent of students from the lowest SES backgrounds, and 80 percent of Indigenous students.

The private school sector also outperforms Australian public schools on standardized tests such as PISA or Australia's national assessment, NAPLAN. Yet, when levels of student advantage are taken into account, it becomes clear that the successes of private schools reflect the sector's more advantaged population and its selective enrollment strategies. Moreover, while Australia's overall level of equity is roughly average according to the OECD, the slope of its socio-economic gradient has steepened between 2006 and 2015, indicating growing gaps in achievement related to level of advantage.

Today, school choice is essentially taken for granted in Australia. Debates about funding persist (and are persistently heated), but the general existence of a large publicly-supported private sector and parents' "right" to choose a school is rarely questioned. School choice, in its various forms, seems here to stay—at least for the foreseeable future—due at least in part to the political challenge of defunding certain types of schools.

For some school choice advocates, Australia shines as a golden example of unfettered parental choice facilitated through the significant investment of public funds in private schools; for others, it represents a cautionary tale about the consequences—both anticipated and unintended—of diverting resources away from the traditional public school sector in the name of choice.

As with the school choice "experiment" in the United States, it remains to be seen who will ultimately benefit most and what the long-term impact will be on the education system as a whole.

Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj, Meghan Stacey, and Matthew A.M. Thomas

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