Pitting Private vs Public Schools is Bad for Education

The fallout of the Gonski Report into educational spending has resulted in the typically predictable bashing of private schools. There is a misguided notion that by funding private schools, Governments are robbing the needs of struggling public schools.

This is simply not the case.

I stand by my remarks from last year:

The continued debate between private and public school funding tires me out. I am a big believer of a well-funded (i.e. wisely funded) public school sector as well as a thriving private school sector. There is no reason why parents can’t be given choice and why supporting private schools must come at the expense of quality public education.

This is where the “Moneyball” analogy fits in.

Moneyball is the true story of Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane. Oakland is severely restricted due to the lowest salary constraints in baseball. Winning means beating teams with much better infrastructure and player payment capacities. Billy is presented with the unenviable task of finding a winning team with the miniscule budget offered. Together with a Harvard economics major, a system is devised that uses statistical data to analyse and value players they pick for the team.

Public schools need to take the same approach. Just like the big baseball teams of the time, plenty of money is spent on public schools, but much of it is wasted money. I look at education in a very traditional way. Whilst it is ideal to have the best sporting fields, technologies and building designs, none of these ingredients has been proven to be essential for teaching and learning the curriculum. The school across the road may be able to give each child their own i-Pad, but that shouldn’t explain a marked difference in maths, science or english results. A teacher should be able to deliver on the curriculum with or without such devices.

Whilst many get worked up when Governments subsidise private schools, there is a good reason why they do it.

1. It takes billions off the budget bottom line. This saves Governments money, resulting in reduced taxes and smaller class sizes in public schools.

2. It allows private schools to lower their fees. This is crucial for parents who are by no means wealthy, but are prepared to scrimp and save (and sometimes take on multiple jobs and a second mortgage) to get their children into private schools. These people should be commended. They work long hours, weekends, give up overseas travel and big screen TV’s, just to give their kids the best education possible. Government subsidies allow that to happen.

In Australia, the Government gives $13,000 to every public school per student. Private schools get $5,000. Factor in to the equation that many private schools are not elite schools with truck loads of money and resources (I work in such a private school, where I earn considerably less than a public school teacher), and you realise that the subsidy shouldn’t detract from a thriving public education system.

By constantly drawing attention to private schools, we risk bringing the private school system down to the public level. What we should be doing instead is trying to get the public school system improved to the level where it gives its private school equivalent a run for its money. That way, you have a private school that sets the bar for top quality education and a public school system that is structured to be able to go toe-to-toe with them based on prudent spending, good decision-making and a workforce of supported and fairly paid teachers.

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5 Responses to “Pitting Private vs Public Schools is Bad for Education”

  1. John Tapscott Says:

    On your point about much of the money being spent on public education being wasted I couldn’t agree more. Because much of the expenditure results from political decisions there is a political component in the decisions over what the money is spent for. Therefore anything that is showy and flash gets the nod over bread and butter items.

    People in the system think in terms of hierarchies. Those at the top of the tree are fawned upon so everyone thinks the top of the tree is the place to be. This gives a warped view of what education is all about. It also leads to the promotion of pigs ahead of draught horses (see “Animal Farm”) and the whole dysfunctional monstrosity recycles itself.

    In point of actual fact, the peak of the educational pyramid is at the level of classrooms. Everything else in the system should be there to support the transactions that take place between teachers and students at that level.

    Unfortunately everything seems to revolve around power. Most of my teaching career has been in public/state schools. Here the “authorities” take a carrot and stick approach towards teachers, who are micro-managed to within an inch of their lives. With few exceptions everyone is on this treadmill.

    What of the students? Not long ago I taught in a high school with 99% indigenous students. They came into the school with literacy and numeracy levels skewed towards the lower end, the median being about grade 2 level. The school executive, which was composed of mainly inexperienced, young teachers succumbed to the bullying of the “system” and insisted on enforcing the state mandated syllabuses. Because the students were unable to cope at the syllabus level we had over 50% absenteeism, fractional truancy and endemic behaviour problems. The whole school was, and still is, a hotbed of power and position issues. Instead of addressing the root causes of the problems the “authorities” continue to seek solutions to do with power and position. Hence the employment of an ambitious English head teacher, paid at the Deputy Principal rate. We all know that problems aren’t fixed by throwing money at them. Rather such an approach has a corrupting effect.

    My point is, I was frustrated, in my efforts to engage my class of students, who were identified as having behaviour disorders, because in their inexperience, head teachers were unable to comprehend the need to program according to the needs of the students you have, not according to the needs of the students you wish you had. I was caught in the tension between an inappropriate syllabus and the needs of my students.

    None of this had, or has, anything to do with spending large amounts of money. What was, and still is, needed is good will, of which the “authorities” are bankrupt.

  2. Dr Vadim Chelom Says:

    Brilliant post. Spot on.

  3. Nick Says:

    Having worked at the same school as John, I can vouch for his comments. I’ve never seen a school with so much money thrown at it for such little result. However – one of the major problems could be solved by money – namely attracting and retaining experienced teachers. Beginning teachers and in-experienced exec (together with teachers staying in the school an average of about 2 years) meant that whatever good was done was thrown out almost straight away as a new set of teachers arrived. I stayed there for almost five years – and was seen as one of the ‘veteran staff members’ by the end of my time. The year after i left the Principal was sacked, the school was restructured again and still nothing concrete was achieved to help these kids…

    But going back to your main point – as a public school teacher the main issue we have with private schools is the simple fact that Private Schools pick and choose the students they wish to enroll (or get rid of) and their results reflect that reality. Where as public schools are required to take all students – and our results reflect that reality. Funding should always go to the students with the highest need – who are predominently enrolled at public schools.

  4. John Tapscott Says:

    You may well be right, Nick, but in my book good will trumps money. I was happy enough with the money side of the job and life in the town was tolerable. My main reason for leaving was deteriorating health, which has since picked up so watch out, I might be out of retirement again.

  5. Michael G. Says:

    Thanks for the comments. Really appreciate it.

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