Fr Matthew Kirby is a priest of the Anglican Catholic Church and a Years 11 and 12 physics teacher at the St Mary's Campus of All Saints' College in Maitland, NSW.
The State Aid issue was revisited in the media during the recent Federal election, often in misinformed, distorted commentaries. This was prompted by ALP leader Mark Latham's proposal during the election campaign to deny funds to a group of so-called wealthy private schools. A public statement critical of this proposal was subsequently released by the Catholic and Anglican Archbishops of Sydney and Melbourne.
A lot of ink was spilt in the pages of the newspapers on the subject of public vs private education with the opponents of State Aid for independent schools the most vocal.
The arguments they generally put are as follows:
* Taxes are paid to the government to, among other things, give access to quality education for all. They do this by providing the public education system. Therefore, if people choose not to use that system, they have no right to have their desire for a private alternative funded by government. That is what "private" means. For example, people do not expect local councils to subsidise their backyard swimming pool when they provide public ones, so why should education be any different?
* Since public funds are designed to ensure access for all children to education, any school which does not guarantee access to any prospective student should not receive such funding. Private schools are discriminatory in their intake, whereas public schools must take all-comers, no matter how unruly, poor or disabled. So, only public schools should get public funding.
* Private schools owe their existence to particular belief-systems, socio-economic groups or subcultures. Therefore they teach students to be intolerant or narrow-thinking, adherents of sectarian prejudices, whereas public schools owe their existence to the egalitarian commitment of our liberal democracy and so, by their very nature, turn out tolerant, broad-minded reasoners, suitable citizens for a democracy.
The problem with the cases made above is that they all rely on fundamentally false assumptions, some spoken, some unspoken.
Let's start with the last one. It is the most amusing. It reduces to this: "To encourage tolerance we must not tolerate your preferences or values - at least, not if you intend seriously to do something meaningful about them, like pass them on to your children and not just as citizens ."
Splendid stuff. There are three false premises that need to be exposed here.
First, an education which asserts moral or spiritual tenets are true is not intrinsically intolerant in principle or in practice. To assume so is a sign either of unthinking anti-religious bigotry (and stereotyping) or the equally irrational inability to distinguish between saying certain propositions are false and saying people who believe these things should be oppressed and their arguments ignored.
Everybody who believes certain things to be true believes that contrary ideas are false. This is not a sign of intolerance but intellectual consistency. It also seems that those who accuse religious schools of intolerance take it as a given that all believers base their faith on nothing more than prejudice.
This is simply wrong - look up the word "apologetics" on an internet search engine.
Second, it is historically untrue that our public education system was founded because a majority of Australians believed education should be effectively "nationalised" on egalitarian grounds.
A large part of the motivation for this development was to counteract the purportedly pernicious and disloyal influence of Catholic education, including by making it financially difficult for parents who sent their children to Catholic schools. These parents could not participate in the public system, as a matter of conscience, due to the teaching of the Church.
Catholics had a choice between unaffordable fees or sub-standard facilities because their taxes did not contribute to their own childrens' educations. In other words, the withdrawal of State Aid and the setting up of a public system which taxpayers were effectively obliged to use were the result of majoritarian prejudice and an attempt to keep a despised but significant minority - Irish Catholics - out of the mainstream of social life and influence. It did not work.
The third lie at the bottom of the third argument is that public education naturally leads to harmonious integration of students from different cultural backgrounds.
Talking to students from public schools with polyglot ethnic mixes will dispel that one fairly quickly. If any advocates of the State system tell you that ethnic-based gang warfare is never a serious problem in their schools, you have good reason to distrust anything else they say.
The second argument reduces in practical terms to "expulsion-envy". The fact that private schools charge fees, which excludes some parents financially, is the reason these schools do not receive as high a level of funding per student from overall government sources.
However, it should be noted that many of these schools offer scholarships to enable access for bright children from poor backgrounds or, as is the case with Catholic systemic schools, make often very generous alternative arrangements for poor families. In one such school I know of, the principal allowed a young man who was paying his own way to do so at $1 a week!
The thing that really sticks in the craw of public system aficionados is that private schools can expel students who persistently do the wrong thing, while public schools cannot, unless they are willing to take on some other school's expelled student. So, they play a game of pass the parcels, where everybody ends up with a parcel which they are guaranteed not to want.
This astonishing process derives from two myths. First, that all children have a right to an education no matter what they actually do (or not do) when at school. In other words, this is an absolute right that comes with no corresponding responsibility - such as to try to learn and to try not to stop others from learning.
The second myth is that a student who has been causing trouble in one school has a good chance of being reformed if he is just given another chance in a different environment. The naivety of this would be touching if it was not so destructive.
The primary false assumption that makes argument two worthless is that forcing the public school system to take anybody, no matter what, is a positive. Once it is recognised that it is not, then comparing the private schools unfavourably in this regard becomes ridiculous.
A secondary error is assuming that private schools get rid of problem children as soon as possible whereas public schools hang on to them as long as possible. The truth is that both types of institution are normally loathe to expel, and it is common for parents to send their unruly children to a private school in the hope that this will "sort them out" somehow.
The first argument is the most plausible, at least superficially. The vast majority of people would agree that a modern society should ensure every child in it has the opportunity to get a good education. And Australian governments meet that obligation by providing publicly-funded schools.
Now, an obligation on a society and its government is an obligation on taxpayers, so, it is asserted, people are obliged to support the public system through their taxes, but not private enterprises. Therefore, only the State schools should receive public funding.
This argument has three unquestioned assumptions. First, that the fact governments ensure universal access by providing public schools means this is the only way they can do it. Second, that this is the only way they actually do it. Third, that the public responsibility to enable universal access conflicts with and annihilates the right of parents to bring up their children in their own way.
The first assumption is incorrect since a government can ensure provision of services by methods other than a government-run institution. It can pay private providers or subsidise the users of the services. Whenever a government hires an engineering firm to build a road it does the former. Whenever it gives welfare payments to make sure everybody has access to necessities it does the latter.
So, when the government subsidises a private school (and so makes it possible for these schools to have much lower fees and be available to more families) it is already meeting its public obligations another way: which deals with the second false assumption.
But it is the third assumption that brings us to the crux of the debate.
The most fundamental question that has to be answered is: "Who is responsible for the upbringing of children first and foremost, parents or the State?" Most people, cultures and religions would immediately answer, "The parents." It would not be far from the truth to say that only those who slavishly follow Marxist or other totalitarian principles would disagree.
Therefore, since education is part of upbringing and in modern civilisations it is exceedingly difficult for most parents to do that part on their own, the parents' job is to arrange for others to teach their children so that they get the chance to fulfil their potential.
But that means the teachers will be acting under and with the authority of the parents, in loco parentis, and that the teaching institutions must be accountable primarily to them. The government's job is to help parents do theirs and to make sure all can.
This can be done by the "socialist" solution of setting up a massive, hegemonic State-run system, or by redistributionist techniques, where parents can choose a school from a number of providers (or co-operate with each other to run their own), but the government uses progressive taxation and different levels of funding to give all our young citizens genuine opportunity.
Our present regime is a mix of these two approaches, with the redistribution getting to its targets indirectly, through subsidising the schools instead of the parents.
The problem with the socialist approach on its own is that it minimises parental control, ignores the natural rights of parents who would prefer not to use whatever the state provides, and so privileges the government's responsibility at the expense of the parental one, which is logically prior.
It may even be possible for states to satisfy their "universal access" obligations solely through redistributionary techniques. Hence it is the public school system which needs to justify its existence, not the private. Remember, teachers are, in the final analysis, employed by the parents - and as parents, not just as citizens.
Now we can see why the public pool analogy fails. If there was a moral obligation for parents to make their children swim for large tracts of their young life, backed up by a legal sanction of compulsory swimming, and if swimming could be done in various ways, the differences being potentially significant for the development of character, then I think our attitude to public (or private) pools would be very different!
As it is, schools are not pools. Parents have little choice but to use them to help develop their children into functioning adults. But surely they each do have a choice as to how that happens.