Today’s Age provides a new twist on an old story with an op-ed piece by John Roskam, head of the Institute of Public Affairs, arguing for means-tested fees in government schools.

The usual answer from the free-market camp to problems of school funding has been the introduction of vouchers, as advocated by Milton Friedman half a century ago: give funds to the children (or the parents) rather than the schools, and let the market work out which schools are best.

One obstacle to vouchers, however, has been a division among their supporters as to whether they should be means tested or universal: in other words, is government funding for education a welfare measure or some sort of basic right?

Roskam doesn’t mention vouchers today, but he puts himself firmly in the means-test camp:

The notion that government schools should be free, regardless of family wealth, is an accident of history and an idea whose time has passed. …
No student should miss out on an education because of family financial circumstances. However, this objective does not conflict with government schools collecting fees from parents able to pay.

As Roskam says, this is an issue of equity. But as well as a subsidy to the well-off, government schools also represent a subsidy to those who have children from those who don’t.

It’s not at all clear that we should treat childbearing as a public good, but if we do then we should subsidise it openly and transparently, not under the guise of an education system.

Roskam also points out that direct funding from fees would increase accountability:

If a service or a product costs nothing, or practically nothing, it is likely to be taken for granted. (The best example of this phenomenon is our attitude to water.)

This, of course, is exactly the argument put by supporters of carbon trading: that consumers have to be made to bear the costs of greenhouse pollution in order to set up the incentives to do something about it.

It would be nice to see the IPA supporting that, just as it would be good to see people like the Greens take up some of Roskam’s wisdom on education.