The Politics    Monday, June 22, 2015

Gambling with education

By Sean Kelly

Gambling with education
Should parents be forced to pay for public schools?

Humans like to think we’re rational beings. We’re not.

This is crazy, but we are more likely to believe a proposition put to us in rhyme. Yep – we’re that weak. Repeated studies have shown it’s true. It’s the science that lay behind OJ Simpson’s legal strategy: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

Another common cognitive flaw is the anchoring bias. One study showed observers a roulette wheel, rigged to stop at either 10 or 65. Observers were then asked what percentage of African nations were UN members – a question totally unrelated to the spin of a roulette wheel. Nevertheless, those who had seen the wheel stop at 10 guessed a much lower number than those who had seen the wheel stop at 65. The same principle applies to negotiations, say over a used car price: the higher the number the salesman names first, the higher the price you are likely to end up paying.

We get stuck very quickly on the first thing we hear. And we tend to anchor our other calculations in relation to it.

I was reminded today that politicians have their own version of anchoring. Name an extreme option as a possibility, and it very quickly shifts a debate. The centre has moved.

It happened a few weeks ago when the government put forward its proposals on stripping alleged terrorists of citizenship. There were two proposals on the table: one about stripping sole citizens of their citizenship, and one about dual citizens. The debate got feisty quickly. The proposal to strip sole citizens provoked outrage – which allowed the second proposal to slip by unnoticed, becoming the reasonable cousin. It has taken weeks of debate for the pendulum to shift back to where it should have begun, with both proposals under scrutiny.

I worry that we are now seeing the same thing happening with the government’s approach to schools funding.

Today a leaked version of the government’s discussion paper on federation reform was leaked to the Sydney Morning Herald. It sounds yawn-worthy, but the bit on schools was dynamite.

The huge, headline-generating proposal was that richer parents would have to pay to send their kids to public schools.

Now at first glance that looks like it might be OK. If you can afford to do so, why shouldn’t you have to fork out a bit more for your child’s education?

But as with any policy you have to look past its political justifications, at what effects it is likely to have.

Despite the fact that repeated studies have shown the type of school a child attends has little impact on their academic performance, there is a widespread perception that private schools offer a better education. And recent years have seen an increase in parents choosing private schools for their children. 

If those few better-off parents who are still using public schools are forced to pay for it, very soon the question becomes: why on Earth wouldn’t I use that money to send my kid to a private school?

The possibility here is that you get an acceleration of the trend we have already seen: a separation of the school system into two distinct classes, schools populated by children from families who can afford to pay for education, and schools populated by poorer children – with the former growing more rapidly.

The first terrible thing this does is stigmatise public schools as the refuge of the poor.

But more importantly, fewer children going to public schools – and especially fewer children of well-off parents, who have often received good educations themselves and are well-placed to argue for their children – means fewer people advocating for public schools. Fewer people advocating for decent standards in public schools. Fewer people advocating for fair levels of funding. Fewer people voting on the basis of how public schools are being treated.

Of course, this is a continuation of the Howard project. John Howard’s changes to school funding – and his attacks on public schools – were likely partially responsible for the increase in enrolment in private schools. In the same way, Howard introduced incentives to well-off families to use private health insurance. These moves meant that over time fewer Australians were invested in public education and in public health.

We may all care about our fellow citizens, but the realities of political engagement are that time is short: unless something affects us directly we are less likely to make a big deal out of it. Howard ensured that future cuts to health and education would affect fewer of us.

Abbott tried to continue this project when he attempted to introduce GP fees. That ultimately failed. And today, when the idea of parents paying fees for public schools was raised, Abbott quickly ruled it out. It seems that Australians have become accustomed to universal health and education, and are unwilling to budge – yet.

But now that the idea of undermining those models has been introduced, you can bet it will be back, if not in quite the same form.

Abbott has introduced us to the worst-case scenarios, and in doing so he has made less-bad options seem more palatable.

I’m not suggesting this is necessarily intentional, or that it is wrong. Both sides of politics do it, and in fact it’s built in to the way that politics works. A party will put forward an idea it believes in, the idea will be shouted down, and the party will come back with something more “reasonable”, but still close to what it believes in.

But, as voters, we must always remain alert to the way our own expectations are being shifted. Policy should be judged on its own merits, not just on whether it is “less bad” than the other options on offer.

In last year’s budget, the Abbott government cut $80 billion from health and education. After today’s shenanigans, that may seem like a pretty good deal. We might begin to think it’s reasonable, that, given the horrors that might have been served up, we should just shut up and smile. We shouldn’t.


Today’s links 

  • The government seems to have retreated from its proposal to give the immigration minister wide discretionary powers over citizenship in relation to alleged terrorists. It now seems that the penalty will be closely based on existing laws related to fighting with the armed forces of a nation at war with Australia. Reports suggest that citizenship will now be able to be revoked based on an individual fighting with terrorist forces. This still seems to leave open the question of who determines that this has occurred – the minister? – but of course we are yet to see the legislation. It’s also worth remembering we don’t know how this section of the act works – even in relation to armed forces – because it has never been used.
  • Bill Shorten appeared on ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday in an effort to combat Coalition claims about his history as a union secretary.  He said he has never, ever put his own interests ahead of those of workers.
  • Albo skolled a beer. A hipster craft beer. A little while ago, when Tony Abbott skolled a beer, I explained why this practice of pollies throwing back beers might be a problem, so in the interests of impartiality, here’s that piece.
  • Fox News’ embarrassing attempts not to mention racism in relation to the Charleston shootings, while Republicans tread carefully around the Confederate flag.
  • Taylor Swift, the most effective union leader in America’s history. Someone hold a Royal Commission, quick.
  • Nobel Prize winner Brian Schmidt says climate change is the great challenge for humanity over the next century.
  • Dogs of the Antipodes II: Johnny Depp vs Barnaby Joyce continues.
  • Another day, another person saying there’s a housing bubble.
  • This might not seem political, but let’s face it, Australians finally paying attention to women’s sport probably is a political act: the Matildas are through to the quarter-finals of the Women’s World Cup.
  • More sport news, this time on the media front: the head of Network Ten has said Google bidding for sporting broadcast rights is “10 out of 10 scary”. And News Corp and Fairfax have both withdrawn from covering the 2015 Rugby World Cup amidst concerns over their ability to report without restriction.

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is the author of The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison, a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


The Politics

Image of Clare O’Neil

Boundless pains

Is now really the time for another migration scare campaign?

Image of Anthony Albanese

What comes next?

How the government responds to recent challenges is make or break for effective progressive government in this country

Image of Mark Dreyfus

The farce estate

The Mark Dreyfus episode sums up everything that is wrong with our politics and our media

Lisa Chesters wipes tears from her eyes. Behind her, the empty seat of the late Peta Murphy is marked with a floral arrangement.

A moment’s peace

Politicians briefly pause their ugly immigration war to pay tribute to Labor MP Peta Murphy

From the front page

Members of the Kanakanvu tribe perform at a Saraya harvest festival, Donghua Village, Taiwan.

Who is Taiwanese?

Taiwan’s minority indigenous peoples are being used to refute mainland China’s claims on the island – but what does that mean for their recognition, land rights and identity?

Image representing a film still of abstract colours

Tacita Dean and the poetics of film editing

The MCA’s survey of the British-born artist’s work reveals both the luminosity of analogue film and its precariousness

Image of David McBride

David McBride’s guilty plea and the need for whistleblower reform

The former army lawyer had no choice but to plead guilty, which goes to show how desperately we need better whistleblower protections

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Mars attracts

Reviving the Viking mission’s experiments may yet find life as we know it on Mars, but the best outcome would be something truly alien