Race, class and 'choice' in schools


On March 10 and 11, the Sydney Morning Herald ran an expose of "white flight" from public schools across NSW. Using a previously confidential survey of 163 high school principals in NSW, it described the phenomenon where increasing numbers of white-European parents were removing their children from disadvantaged public schools in regional and remote areas and areas in Sydney's south-west and placing them in private schools or in selective state schools in more distant suburbs.

The racial issue underpinning "white flight" intersects strongly with class. The end result is the creation of a segregated education system, with wealthier (predominantly white) parents removing their children from the general public school system and moving them to private schools or to selective state schools. The result is that the general state school system is left with children from socially disadvantaged and non-English speaking backgrounds.

"From about the late '80s and certainly the early '90s there was a retreat from multiculturalism", Dr Carol Reid from the University of Western Sydney's School of Education told Green Left Weekly. "In that time, we've developed policies of school choice and those two things sitting together I believe have created a situation whereby we're finding a patchwork of areas where there's segregation developing."

The racist dimension of "white flight" in Sydney's suburbs has deepened since the 2005 Cronulla riot. The March 10 SMH quoted one principal from the report as saying: "The Asian students are scared off by Lebanese enrolment at our school following the Cronulla riots — we had 18 no-shows on day one in Year 11, mostly Asian." On March 11, the sentiments of at least one comment sent to the SMH website evoked the racist view: "If you are prepared to sacrifice your own children for social cohesion, bus them out to Auburn, Bankstown or Granville and do your bit for the public system."

Reid told GLW that she also knew of instances where parents consciously chose to send their children to more culturally diverse schools, however.

The government policy of giving parents their "choice" of schools is creating an entrenched two-tier education system, where the standard of education is increasingly based on ability to pay. "All western liberal democracies are experiencing increased segregation because of the fact that they've all turned education into a market place", Reid said. "It's part of the impact of neoliberalism across the Western world ... This is going to have long-term consequences if we don't respond soon."

At the heart of the creation of a two-tier system is the issue of education funding. Federal funding of private education began in the 1950s, with the Liberal Menzies government seeking to woo Catholic Labor voters. In 1973, the Whitlam Labor government massively increased federal education funding — including to private schools.

In the 2007 federal budget, funding to private schools was set to increase by 29% to $7 billion, while funding to public schools increased only 9.6% to $3.4 billion, according to the NSW Teachers Federation. The Rudd Labor government has agreed to maintain federal funding for private schools, to guarantee parents "choice", meaning that private schools (that currently educate only a third of students nationally) will continue to receive almost two-thirds of federal education funding.

The Socio-Economic Status (SES) funding model, developed by the Coalition but adopted by Labor, further exacerbates the problem. This rewards private schools with extra funding for each student they recruit from disadvantaged areas (as measured by average income per postcode area).

"The so-called Socio-Economic Status model assumes that all families in a neighbourhood have the same income, but they don't", NSW Greens parliamentarian John Kaye noted on March 10. "The system encourages private schools to cherry pick the better-off families in poor neighbourhoods.".

State-based policies also have an impact on the creation of an inequitable education system. In 1988, the Greiner Coalition government in NSW partially dezoned all state schools, allowing parents to "choose" to send their children to a state school out of their area as long as vacancies existed. At the same time, the decision was taken to establish new selective schools, increasing their number from 11 in 1988 to 28 in 2002.

NSW Labor, which has been in government since 1995, has added to the social divide by providing a public subsidy for bus, rail or ferry travel for students to attend school only as long as the school attended is more than two kilometres away from home. The subsidy adds to the problem of "white flight", by encouraging parents to "choose" the school (public or private) at which their child is educated, often leaving local schools behind. The federal government also offers a tax rebate to parents who use private transport to convey children to distant schools, further encouraging "choice".

"If you add [dezoning, federal funding of private education and tax rebates] and you throw into that a retreat from multiculturalism in terms of any programmatic support, in this context that's been marked by global terror and the fear-mongering of our previous PM, you've got a whole range of explanations for the moving of parents", Reid explained. "The policies of school choice set up a problem for parents. I think that parents are really set up in a bind here."

Kaye was particularly critical of the role of state government policy. "The Iemma government could invest in reducing class sizes and employing more specialist teachers in public schools with significant behaviour and learning issues", he said. "Instead their $443 million School Students Transport Scheme encourages travel past local public schools to private schools in other suburbs."

The increased privatisation of education is the context for state governments' attacks on public school teachers' wages and conditions. Teachers in Victoria, NSW and Western Australia are all fighting state Labor governments to achieve pay rises and decent working conditions.

The March 10 Sydney Morning Herald quoted NSW director-general of education Michael Coutts-Trotter, who inferred that the solution to "white flight" from public schools was to be found in freeing-up the teacher-appointment system, to allow more motivated teachers to travel to more challenging schools. However, according to the NSWTF, the abolition of the incentive transfer system will only make the situation worse. "I find it surprising and shocking that [Coutts-Trotter] would choose the opportunity created by the Sydney Morning Herald article to advocate for deregulated staffing", NSWTF president Maree O'Halloran said in a March 11 open letter. "The schools most affected by class and race segregation are those that will certainly be the hardest to staff in a deregulated environment."

Reid agreed with O'Halloran's assessment. "We already have a situation in south-west Sydney and some large regional towns, where it's almost impossible to get staff and that's on the basis of appointing people", she told GLW. "If you combine a residualised school, with immigrant teachers, with teachers who are very young and inexperienced ... it's very unfair for the teachers in those class rooms."

"Dropping the centralised staffing system is going to benefit particular cohorts of teachers and schools and not others", Reid continued. "It's clearly not going to benefit south-west Sydney and certainly not rural areas. Someone has already come out and said that a whole lot of teachers are already trying to get out of the north west [of NSW] before they lose all their transfer points."

At its 2007 state conference, the NSWTF adopted policy insisting that "all levels of government must take responsibility for providing proper investment in public education. This includes an increased, targeted investment in sustainable equity programs in school communities that experience entrenched, intersecting disadvantage." The union's call has gone largely unheeded by state and federal Labor governments.

On February 11, Angelo Gavrielatos, the Australian Education Union's president, called on the Rudd government to increase federal funding to public schools by $2.9 billion a year. "They must also act quickly to address areas of specific need with targeted funding", he said.

The AEU's demand will only go part of the way to solving the crisis, however. With the public school system facing such a massive funding crisis, which has precipitated the "white flight" to private schools, the time has come to end the ideologically motivated policy of "choice" which underpins public funding of private schools. Public funds should be directed exclusively to the public school system. While not interfering with private school's right to exist, there is no justification for public money being spent to subsidise student drift from the public sector.

Instead, all students must be guaranteed a place in a well-resourced public school. The $7 billion of federal funding spent on private schools should be redirected to public schools. It's the only "choice" that would guarantee a decent education for all students.