The debate on school vouchers, launched on Monday by Allan Fels and kicked along by Andrew Norton in Crikey, has now intensified. According to this morning’s Australian,
Liberal Party backbenchers have spoken up in support of a voucher
scheme, criticising Brendan Nelson for apparently ruling out the idea.

Vouchers are a good idea in principle but, like many things beloved of the Coalition backbench, they require a bit more thought.

Private
and government schools can never really compete on equal terms.
Government schools are handicapped by a whole range of restrictions on
their admissions, employment and administration that don’t apply to
private schools; they also have to raise capital in a completely
different way to private schools. A comprehensive voucher scheme, if it
were to work, would have to mean the privatisation of the government
school sector.

Personally I don’t have a problem with that. Food
is just as important as education, but nobody thinks it’s necessary for
the government to own supermarkets. Supporters of vouchers, however,
are being disingenuous if they don’t admit that that is where the
argument leads.

Even leaving that aside, any move to vouchers
has to answer two questions: who gets them, and where are they allowed
to spend them? Our present system of funding schools rather than
children hides the fact that the beneficiaries of this government
largesse are mostly the middle class and the wealthy. Because vouchers
would be more transparent the case for some sort of means testing would
become overwhelming.

Just as controversial would be the question
of what sort of schools are eligible for vouchers. The private school
market is still dominated by the churches: are we really comfortable
with so much public money going to the support of religion? What about
fundamentalist schools? Just Christian ones, or Muslim as well? What
about home schooling? Where does education end and indoctrination
begin, and who decides?

If this becomes a real debate, rather than just an exchange of slogans, it could get very interesting.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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