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A quarterly magazine of urban affairs, published by the Manhattan Institute, edited by Brian C. Anderson.

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Schools Down Under
Australian education-policy questions should sound familiar to Americans.
15 July 2008

Australia and the United States have much in common—language, political institutions, the influence of British settlement, and, more recently, fighting together on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. They also have a lot in common in the field of education.

Books like Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education, and Diane Ravitch’s The Language Police make clear how effective America’s Left has been in its long march to take control of education, especially the curriculum, in an attempt to transform society. The Left has targeted education in Australia, too. Over the last 30 years or so, professional associations, teachers’ unions, and academics in teacher-training institutions have consistently attacked more traditional, competitive curricula as elitist, socially unjust, and guilty of enforcing a Eurocentric, patriarchal, and privileged view of the world. In 1983, Joan Kirner, who eventually became the state of Victoria’s education minister and then its premier, argued that education had to be reshaped as “part of the socialist struggle for equality, participation and social change, rather than an instrument for the capitalist system.” More recently, the editor of the journal for the Australian Association for the Teaching of English argued that the John Howard–led conservative government’s victory in 2004 was a result of the nation’s English teachers’ failure to teach young people the proper (i.e., left-wing) way to vote.

Currently, eight Australian states and territories have the power to manage what is taught in their schools, but the recently elected, left-of-center national government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is trying to develop a national curriculum. Such is the Left’s control of education that the effort is cause for concern: any federally imposed curriculum will likely be ideologically driven and politically correct. During the early and mid-nineties, for example, the Commonwealth of Australia’s left-leaning government developed a national curriculum so politically correct and dumbed-down that, after public outcry led by conservatives and the media, it was eventually rejected at a meeting of state, territory, and commonwealth education ministers.

Like America, Australia has both public and private schools. (As the German researcher Ludger Woessmann notes, one characteristic of stronger-performing education systems, as measured by international tests, is a muscular private-school sector.) On the whole, Australian private schools are more academically minded than their public counterparts, especially at the high school level. Private schools also have a better chance of escaping destructive curriculum initiatives like the “whole language” approach to reading instruction, as well as feel-good assessment systems that refuse to tell students that they have failed.

One striking difference between the United States and Australia, however, is that the Land Down Under doesn’t need a formal school-voucher system like those in some American localities. In Australia, students attending private schools automatically receive funding from state governments and the commonwealth, with the amount of taxpayers’ money received per student varying according to each school community’s socioeconomic profile. While the figure never fully covers the cost of educating students (the average cost of educating a state-school student is $10,000, while the average government subsidy to private-school students is $5,000), private schools have become increasingly popular. In 1997, approximately 30 percent of students attended private schools; by 2007, the figure had grown to approximately 34 percent. Surveys suggest that parents choose private schools because they have a strong academic focus, better reflect parental values, and promote excellence.

While private schools must register with the government and conform to regulations in areas like health and safety, teacher certification, and financial probity, they enjoy flexibility when it comes to curriculum and staffing. They have been particularly effective in more affluent, middle-class areas, where they have forced government schools to promote a more disciplined and academic environment.

The curriculum debate now revolves around questions of increased testing and accountability, teacher performance, and developing a national curriculum in order to become more internationally competitive. However, since we have left-of-center governments at all levels—state, territory, and commonwealth—I fear that future education policies will be premised on statism, instead of opening schools to the type of accountability, choice, and competition represented by the market. Further, the commonwealth’s minister for education, Julia Gillard, defines the purpose of education in terms of its utilitarian value, by linking it to increasing productivity. No one disputes the importance of economic growth, of course. But it’s vital that we don’t lose sight of the broader cultural, spiritual, and ethical value of education as well.

Kevin Donnelly is the executive director of Melbourne-based Education Strategies and the author of Dumbing Down. He writes on a regular basis for The Australian.

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