Jane Caro: Why public funding of private schools hurts us all.

What do women and public schools have in common? We pay them less but expect them to do more.

I have often mused over the parallels between the way we see public schools in Australia and the way we see women.

We pay women less but expect them to do much more. Public schools are chronically underfunded, yet teach the vast majority of kids (the poorest, the disabled, indigenous, rural, remote, refugees, new migrants and the behaviourally and emotionally disturbed).

We congratulate fathers for doing absolutely anything for their own children but blame mothers if they neglect the smallest thing.

This always reminds me of how we go into paroxysms of admiration when fee charging schools offer a scholarship to a couple of poor kiddies compared to how we routinely sneer at public schools for struggling with the thousands left behind.

If a scandal hits a private school (I won’t mention Knox, I promise) it is seen as reflecting only on that individual school, but when a scandal hits a public school it is seen as reflecting on all public schools.

When a woman fails, it is seen as reflecting on all women, when a man fails its because he and he alone wasn’t up to it.

Knox Grammar School next to Ashtonfield Public School in NSW

I have always believed that the essence of sexism is that we believe men have merit, until they prove otherwise while we believe the opposite about women. So it is with schools. Simply because they charge fees we automatically believe private schools have merit until they prove otherwise (and sometimes, as we do with men, we stubbornly ignore all evidence to the contrary).

We assume public schools don’t have merit (and may indeed be dens of iniquity) until one of them confounds that prejudice. And, interestingly, when a public school does prove it is doing a good job, we laud it and carry on about it in a tone that emphasises just how much of an exception we think that school is.

We do the same with successful women. Wow! We seem to say, isn’t it amazing that a woman (and/or public school) can actually do good work!

Ever wondered if it’s worth sending your kids to private school? Here’s the answer. 

Maybe that’s why I fight so hard for both women’s rights and for the importance of public education. If equality matters, and all the evidence indicates that if you want a safe, prosperous, civil society, it does, then our ignorant assumptions about the superiority of one gender (or one set of schools) over another, need to change.


Interestingly, a country that was even more captive to private schooling than Australia (and with 40% of students going to fee charging schools we are already an outlier in the OECD) has begun to reconsider its policies.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has a bill before parliament that would ban public funding of for profit private schools, make all primary and secondary schooling free, and prohibit practices that enable some schools to select their students.

Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, UN Women Executive Director

Public funding of private schools in Chile was established under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. It has resulted in one of the most socio-economically segregated education systems in the world. Mind you, we are not far behind. In 2010 – pre-Gonski– OECD figures showed that Australia was the third lowest funder of public schools among developed countries. Given a little of the promised Gonski funding has trickled through in 2015 – particularly in NSW – this may have changed a little. The Gonski money follows the most disadvantaged kids so most of it has gone to public schools. Even so, unlike Chile if their bill gets up, we won’t be rocketing up the public school funding ladder in the OECD, not by any means.

The same report also showed Australia was the fourth highest funder of private schools in the OECD.

Obviously if Chile substantially changes the way it funds them, we can expect to go up in that ranking.

But is that a good thing? Why has Chile decided that the public funding of private schools is a bad idea and needs to be changed, and should we follow suit? I believe that the public subsidy of private supply is always inflationary. That is because the market will charge what the market will bear so – unless you cap the fees the private supplier can charge – they will simply charge what consumers are prepared to pay and add it to the subsidy.

Jane Caro on Q&A

We have seen this happen time and time again; with the first home buyer’s scheme, with the childcare rebate and with the private health fund rebate. For many private schools, the fees go up by more than the rate of inflation year after year . There is no evidence that public subsidy in an unregulated market reduces costs to consumers. Rather it creates a windfall for suppliers. We now have a publicly subsidised arms race where high fee charging schools must offer ever more luxurious bells and whistles to attract well-heeled parents.


Sending your kids to private school now costs more than a house. Ouch.

God knows what the parents are buying, frankly, but what return are the major investors in those schools – the taxpayers – getting for their money?

A recent analysis of data from the My School website shows that private and Catholic schools spend a total of $3.3 billion more on their students than public schools educating students from similar socio-economic backgrounds.

But the data also shows those private school kids get no better results.

“The data also shows those private school kids get no better results.” (Students writing the HSC)

Imagine if we diverted that $3 billion to the neediest kids in our most disadvantaged schools? We might just close some of our yawning achievement gaps rather than toss it against the walls of media facilities, concert halls and state of the art sporting infrastructure.

I think Chile, unlike Australia, is heading in the right direction and it will be interesting to see what effect their new funding scheme has on their performance rankings in the OECD.

I would love to see Australia return to a strong, secular public education system available to all, fully and fairly funded by the taxpayer, which could include religious schools as long as they abided by the same enrolment criteria. Private schools would not disappear, they would simply return to being fully funded by parents. Who knows, if such schools were forced to compete with an excellent public school system, their fees might even fall.

Our kids aren’t getting smarter. They are going backwards. 

It isn’t going to happen any time soon but eventually, as it has with Chile, it will happen. What we are doing now is costing everyone, including the taxpayer, governments and parents far too much money for far too little return.

It is estimated that if we closed the gap between male and female participation in employment it would increase Australia’s GDP by 11%

I wonder what effect it would have if we closed the achievement gap between our advantaged and disadvantaged students?

Is increasing funding for public schools important to you?