Crunching the numbers

John Bushell writes: Re. “Are conservatives better economic managers?” (yesterday). By forecasting a budget deficit increasing from 24% to 32% of GDP in four years, the May 3 budget this year established an insidious constraint on the Australian economy. An increasing deficit restricts a nation’s ability for governments to borrow to fund essential infrastructure (Australia’s current 10-year bond is at a record low rate of 2.22% per annum). This leaves infrastructure to be financed by the unsustainable sale of state assets plus borrowing from banks or superannuation funds at around 10% per annum. Thus this federal government is wilfully throwing away Australia’s capacity to borrow to create the future at historically low interest rates whilst unnecessarily feeding the finance industry.

How to boost educational outcomes

David Edmunds writes:How the right is blunting Labor’s Gonski wedge” (yesterday). At the same time as Australia has been increasing funding to education it has been increasing the proportion of students who go to private schools, and has been slipping down in international rankings of educational outcomes.

The conservatives may be correct in saying that educational expenditure is not directly linked to educational outcomes, but ignore the fact that public education appears to correlate quite strongly with good educational outcomes.  That is, the countries at the top of the education rankings have systems with very little private education.  The diversion of education funds in Australia to where they are least needed is clearly a related factor. This makes sense, as the presence in more or less comprehensive schools of children of  community leaders, education advocates, employers and educated professionals is clearly a driver of success within that school.

A combination of Gonski funding and a commitment to drive the performance of our public schools to draw back the sort of families that have deserted these schools over the last 30 or 40 years will have an impact on results.  Measurement and accountability are essential, but they don’t make the pig any fatter. Teacher salaries and status are important.  Over the last 20 years the reward for teachers has probably dropped as they no longer access defined-benefit superannuation funds.  So the salaries may have increased slightly, but not sufficiently to offset the lower superannuation benefit.

All political parties talk about improving teacher quality, but will not address reward in a meaningful sense.  The best teacher in any city is paid exactly the same as the worst, and around 20% of the most mediocre medical specialist, and about the same as an experienced clerk.  A high school teacher probably teaches around 130 students per year.  A really good teacher in a difficult school may change the outcomes of one or two students per year from being likely long-term welfare recipients to productive workers, while adding value for all of their students. A salary of $200,000 per year for such a teacher would be less than their direct economic impact, and yet they can expect to earn less than half of that amount.  The reverse argument can be made about incompetent teachers who are readily identified and could be removed from teaching in a decent and just way, if there was a will to do so. It is wrong to think that Australian Education Union would oppose either of these measures.

The conservatives believe, contrary to their supposed commitment to markets, that it is possible to convince the best and brightest to forget about earning a good professional income and work for love as a teacher.  The same argument does not apply to bankers or plumbers. There are numerous obvious strategies that could radically improve our school education outcomes but I do not know of anyone in any of the schools I have worked in who believes that this can be done without money.  We may even have to spend as much as the OECD average.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey