Thursday, July 26, 2012

What if public schools were abolished?

In American culture, public schools are praised in public and criticized in private, which is roughly the opposite of how we tend to treat large-scale enterprises like Walmart. In public, everyone says that Walmart is awful, filled with shoddy foreign products and exploiting workers. But in private, we buy the well-priced, quality goods, and long lines of people hope to be hired.

Why is this? It has something to do with the fact that public schools are part of our civic religion, the primary evidence that people cite to show that local government serves us. And there is a psychological element. Most of us turn our kids over to them, so surely they must have our best interest at heart!

But do they? Murray N. Rothbard's Education: Free and Compulsory explains that the true origin and purpose of public education is not so much education as we think of it, but indoctrination in the civic religion. This explains why the civic elite is so suspicious of homeschooling and private schooling: it's not fear of low test scores that is driving this, but the worry that these kids aren't learning the values that the state considers important.

But to blast public schools is not the purpose of this article. There are decent public schools and terrible ones, so there is no use generalizing. Nor is there a need to trot out data on test scores. Let me just deal with economics. All studies have shown that average cost per pupil for public schools is twice that of private schools (here is a sample studyDownload PDF).

This runs contrary to intuition, since people think of public schools as free and private schools as expensive. But once you consider the source of funding (tax dollars vs. market tuition or donation), the private alternative is much cheaper. In fact, the public schools cost as much as the most expensive and elite private schools in the country. The difference is that the cost of public schooling is spread out over the entire population, whereas the private school cost is borne only by the families with students who attend them.

In short, if we could abolish public schools and compulsory schooling laws, and replace it all with market-provided education, we would have better schools at half the price, and be freer too. We would also be a more just society, with only the customers of education bearing the costs.

What's not to like? Well, there is the problem of the transition. There are obvious and grave political difficulties. We might say that public education enjoys a political advantage here due to network effects. A significant number of "subscriptions," etc. have been piled up in the status quo, and it is very difficult to change those.

But let's pretend. Let's say that a single town decided that the costs of public schooling are too vast relative to private schooling, and the city council decided to abolish public schools outright. The first thing to notice is that this would be illegal, since every state requires localities to provide education on a public basis. I don't know what would happen to the city council. Would they be jailed? Who knows? Certainly they would be sued.

But let's say we somehow get past that problem, thanks to, say, a special amendment in the state constitution that exempts certain localities if the city council approves. Then there is the problem of federal legislation and regulation. I am purely speculating since I don't know the relevant laws, but we can guess that the Department of Education would take notice, and a national hysteria of some sort would follow. But let's say we miraculously get past that problem too, and the federal government lets this locality go its own way.

There will be two stages to the transition. In the first stage, many seemingly bad things will happen. How are the physical buildings handled in our example? They are sold to the highest bidder, whether that be to new school owners, businesses, or housing developers. And the teachers and administrators? All let go. You can imagine the outcry.

With property taxes abolished, people with kids in public schools might move away. There will be no premium for houses in school districts that are considered good. There will be anger about this. For the parents that remain, there is a major problem of what to do with the kids during the day.

With property taxes gone, there is extra money to pay for schools, but their assets have just fallen in market value (even without the Fed), which is a serious problem when it comes to shelling out for school tuition. There will, of course, be widespread hysteria about the poor too, who will find themselves without any schooling choices other than homeschool.

Now, all that sounds pretty catastrophic, doesn't it? Indeed. But it is only phase one. If we can somehow make it to phase two, something completely different will emerge. The existing private schools will be filled to capacity and there will be a crying need for new ones. Entrepreneurs will quickly flood into the area to provide schools on a competitive basis. Churches and other civic institutions will gather the money to provide education.

At first, the new schools will be modeled on the public school idea. Kids will be there from 8 to 4 or 5, and all classes will be covered. But in short order, new alternatives will appear. There will be schools for half-day classes. There will be large, medium, and small schools. Some will have 40 kids per class, and others 4 or 1. Private tutoring will boom. Sectarian schools of all kinds will appear. Micro-schools will open to serve niche interests: science, classics, music, theater, computers, agriculture, etc. There will be single-sex schools. Whether sports would be part of school or something completely independent is for the market to decide.

And no longer will the "elementary, middle school, high school" model be the only one. Classes will not necessarily be grouped by age alone. Some will be based on ability and level of advancement too. Tuition would range from free to super expensive. The key thing is that the customer would be in charge.

Transportation services would spring up to replace the old school-bus system. People would be able to make money by buying vans and providing transportation. In all areas related to education, profit opportunities would abound.

In short, the market for education would operate the same as any other market. Groceries, for example. Where there is a demand, and obviously people demand education for their kids, there is supply. There are large grocery stores, small ones, discount ones, premium ones, and stores for groceries on the run. It is the same for other goods, and it would be the same for education. Again, the customer would rule. In the end, what would emerge is not entirely predictable — the market never is — but whatever happened would be in accord with the wishes of the public.

After this phase two, this town would emerge as one of the most desirable in the country. Educational alternatives would be unlimited. It would be the source of enormous progress, and a model for the nation. It could cause the entire country to rethink education. And then those who moved away would move back to enjoy the best schools in the country at half the price of the public schools, and those without children in the house wouldn't have to pay a dime for education. Talk about attractive!

So which town will be the first to try it and show us all the way?


What hope for Britain's faith schools?

The Roman Catholic primary school with a 90 per cent Muslim intake raises questions about immigration and the future of our church schools

'We’ve only the one family who insist on taking their children out of RE lessons,” says Father Bernard Kelly, the long-serving chairman of the governors at the Rosary School at Saltley in inner-city Birmingham.

Thirty years ago, its 400 pupils were all Catholics, many of them first or second-generation Irish. Now all but 10 per cent are Muslims, yet their parents are apparently happy for them to sit through lessons taught by a largely Christian staff and taken from a Catholic syllabus that includes subjects such as the Pope, the Virgin Mary, the Mass and Jesus.

“What can I say?” exclaims 72-year-old Fr Kelly. “It’s their choice. We make no imposition on them to change their religion.”

Saltley itself, he reports, has altered dramatically even in his 17 years in the parish “and now there are certainly Muslim schools nearby that these children could go to. We’re right next door to a local authority, non-denominational primary, but still Muslim parents keep choosing our Catholic school. It’s a revelation to me.”

He means it in the best possible sense of word – so much so that he insists that the 80-year-old Rosary School will be here “for another eight decades”. Others, though, might use the same word in a different spirit. For this Catholic primary has been making headlines on account of its unusual intake, and has in the process reignited the fierce debate about immigration and the role and purpose of state-funded faith schools.

If these, critics ask, are to continue to be funded by the taxpayer to the tune of 100 per cent of their wage bills and 90 per cent of their capital costs (the other 10 per cent has to be raised by members of the church or denomination), then shouldn’t the logic of the system be that Catholic schools cater for Catholic children, Jewish ones for Jewish children and so on? Why should the state pay the Catholic Church to educate Muslims?

The question takes on a greater urgency when we consider the first fruits of the 2011 census, which was unveiled last week. These show the largest growth in population in England and Wales (by 3.7 million) in any 10-year period since records began in 1810, with one principal cause being a rise in immigration.

That brings a new diversity to our population, in ethnic and religious terms, but also places fresh strains on the compact between government and churches, sealed by the 1944 Education Act, which allows for children in particular faith groups to attend taxpayer-funded “voluntary-controlled” and “voluntary-aided” schools, such as the Rosary Primary.

There are currently about 6,500 such primaries and secondaries in the state system – 65 per cent of them Anglican, 33 per cent Catholic, and smaller numbers of Jewish and Methodist. In recent years, Whitehall has extended this concession to other faiths. The most recent figures from the Department for Education list one Hindu, one Seventh Day Adventist, four Sikh and 11 Muslim voluntary-aided schools.

But numbers have not kept pace with our rapidly rising and diverse population, leading to anomalies such as that seen at the Rosary School. Indeed, the influx has been so fast that, as we can see from the Rosary School, some of society’s institutions no longer explicitly reflect the communities they serve.

The response to this challenge has been attempts to agree an upper and lower cap on admissions from the sponsoring faith group to ensure that the school lives up to its own denominational mission and justifies the allocation of state funds. But there is little agreement on what those limits should be – or even if they are necessary.

The Rt Rev John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford, head of the Church of England’s Education Board, caused headlines last year by suggesting his schools should admit only one in 10 Anglican church-goers because their “primary function” is “to serve the wider community”. Otherwise, he warned, C of E schools risked operating only to collect “nice Christians into safe places”.

As well as highlighting concerns about community cohesion, the bishop’s remarks were also interpreted as addressing the widespread perception that church schools too often attract ambitious but irreligious middle-class parents because of their better-than-average academic records.

Current practice in most Anglican schools is to admit about 50 per cent of churchgoers (real or otherwise). But the Church of England, as the Established Church, has a unique view of itself as serving everyone in local communities, regardless of their denominational attachment or absence of one. And so the balancing act it tries to pull off is to try to make its schools sufficiently different from their secular counterparts – without ever making them so Christian that they put off the godless and those of other faiths.

The Church School of the Future, published in March under the auspices of Bishop Pritchard, addressed this conundrum directly. It advocated no softening of the commitment to the teaching of RE or to a collective act of Christian worship, but also promoted “distinctiveness within an inclusive community framework”.

Worthy sentiments, but hardly a blueprint for headteachers on how to proceed day to day. The reality is that in most schools they make their own decisions. Some, for example, allow Muslim pupils to wear veils or skullcaps, others don’t. At the Rosary, it is permitted, but Fr Kelly reports that most choose to wear the standard uniform instead. Some schools insist all attend acts of worship, others don’t. Again, it is optional at the Rosary. And some allow children to finish early to attend faith-formation classes at their local temple or mosque. Others don’t.

Michael Gove has often spoken of his admiration for faith schools. But the Secretary of State’s views on the question of a cap may be judged by a leaked letter he wrote earlier this year concerning a planned Catholic comprehensive in Richmond. A high-profile local campaign group, claiming that non-Catholics in the area faced religious discrimination by being excluded from the school, had been pressing for only half of the places at the new school to be reserved for Catholics. In his letter, Mr Gove described this suggestion as seeming “very sensible to me”.

This 50 per cent mark seems to represent the direction of travel for Whitehall and Westminster in the wider debate. But it is fiercely resisted by those running long-standing denominational schools. The Catholic bishops, for instance, defeated a 2008 proposal from the Labour government to impose a 25 per cent non-Catholic intake.

With hindsight, it feels like a curious victory. While some of the most popular and high-achieving Catholic schools can happily fill their classes with Mass-goers, overall figures produced by the Catholic Education Service in 2011 show that nationwide the level of Catholic pupils in Catholic schools stands at 70 per cent – that is, lower than the Labour government had proposed. In Catholic sixth forms, the figure falls to 50 per cent.

However, there seems little appetite right now to revisit the issue, but cases such as the Rosary Primary continue to highlight the apparent absurdities of the present policy of muddling through. The Catholic weekly, the Tablet, reported in 2011 that there were about 25 other schools in similar situations – mainly in the North West and the Midlands, and specifically areas that once had large immigrant Catholic populations, but where the next generation had moved out to be replaced by Muslim families.

The situation varies around the country. In some large cities, the recent influx of Poles and other eastern Europeans has seen Catholic parishes and schools rejuvenated and filled to the limit. And so different dioceses adopt different approaches.

In Salford diocese – which serves Catholics in the Manchester region – the bishop decided in September 2010 to close Sacred Heart Primary in Blackburn when the percentage of Catholics fell to 3 per cent, and to sell the premises to the local education authority. Among those keen to take it over was the local mosque that wanted to run it as a Muslim voluntary-aided school.

“We want to make sure the educational needs of the community are met,” said the diocesan director of education, Geraldine Bradbury, at the time. “We would not be serving the local community by insisting that we run the school. It means having a Catholic headteacher [all Catholic schools must have a Catholic head] and 10 per cent of the timetable on RE. It would be very wrong of us.”

In Birmingham, by contrast, faced by similar statistics at the Rosary School, there is a commitment to keep it open as long as local parents want it. Fr Kelly insists that the work it is doing today in its classrooms with its 90 per cent Muslim intake is “living the gospel in a wider context” and therefore absolutely central to the “witness” of the Church in a multicultural society.

In the space between his unbridled enthusiasm, the Anglican Bishop of Oxford’s controversial talk of distinctiveness and inclusion, and Bradbury’s straightforward pragmatism lies the heart of an unresolved debate about the direction of faith schools funded by the public purse. In an age where immigration is profoundly changing the very fabric of our society, is it whom these schools serve in the denominational sense or how they go about it that justifies their continued existence?


Australia: State of secrecy over University of Queensland job loss

They fired a whistleblower but bribed him to stay silent about his job loss.  Big Bucks, no doubt!  Taxpayer bucks

THE University of Queensland will have us believe that Phil Procopis, the whistleblower in the uni's nepotism scandal, was made redundant simply because his department was restructured.

Procopis was the director of a unit known on campus as ARMS, an acronym for Assurance and Risk Management Services. ARMS no longer exists.

Procopis's position was abolished and he signed a confidentially agreement to receive his payout. Restructures happen. So does nepotism. So does secrecy.

Vice-chancellor Professor Paul Greenfield and his deputy Michael Keniger left the university after The Courier-Mail revealed a "close family member" [his daughter] of Greenfield had gained entry to the medical faculty without the proper entry requirements.

Greenfield denied any wrongdoing, saying the relative was admitted to the medical school as the result of a misunderstanding.

Procopis is central to the story because The Courier-Mail recently revealed he was the mysterious whistleblower who raised concerns about the improper admission with Chancellor John Story.

The scandal got a head of steam, I believe, because it shattered our perceptions that post-Fitzgerald Queensland was relatively free of cronyism and that our society had at last become a (cliche alert) "level playing field".  In a broader sense, it also challenged national ideals of egalitarianism and the fair go.

Until the university scandal, most of us naively believed Queenslanders were rewarded on merit. The truth was a little different. Now we know it will not harm your prospects to have friends or relatives in high places.

Nepotism exists in Queensland across business, the arts, law, medicine and even the media.  Premier Campbell Newman admitted it existed in government and shrugged his shoulders when asked what he was going to do about it.

The university controversy also got a head of steam because the venerable institution at first issued misleading press releases about Greenfield and Keniger leaving. Greenfield was forced out after the university commissioned an investigation by Tim Carmody, SC. Carmody's report remains secret and we don't even know for sure the name of the student at the heart of the affair.

The university made a mockery of the the new regulatory body, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, by refusing to hand over the Carmody report.

TEQSA chief commissioner Dr Carol Nicoll told a Senate estimates hearing the uni would not release the document, claiming confidentiality and privilege.

Tertiary Education Minister Senator Chris Evans was cryptic, telling the hearing it was a "complex case", and not as "straightforward" as some suggest.  Was he suggesting universities are beyond the reach of Federal Cabinet?

Greenfield walked away with a payout of $952,000, reports tabled in Parliament revealed. His deputy, Keniger, a key figure in the imbroglio, also quit. He got $695,000.

The Crime and Misconduct Commission has completed its investigations into the scandal and its brief of evidence is in the hands of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Meanwhile, the university has not released all the details surrounding the exit of Procopis. It should.

The academic committee set up to evaluate ARMS was chaired by Dr Len Gainsford from Victoria. It praised Procopis's unit and gave it seven "commendations".

"ARMS is widely respected by managers across UQ," it reported. "The unit consists of a committed and dedicated team." It said ARMS "responded well to governance initiatives" and its audits were "well regarded".

It added: "The introduction of a risk-management framework and development of commitment towards its progress has been effective."  Despite the glowing report card ARMS was abolished.

Vice-Chancellor Deborah Terry says the restructuring was the result of a "routine, cyclical" review initiated before the admissions scandal.

Terry says "it would be inaccurate and wrong" to link the role of Procopis in unearthing the scandal to his redundancy.

Procopis's redundancy and the disbanding of his department happened despite Terry announcing on May 17 that Procopis would have a central role in misconduct matters under a package of governance reforms.

Terry told The Courier-Mail recently that at the time of her May announcement, "the proposed reorganisation ... had not been finalised".

In a letter to staff she added: "The review and the re-organisation were unrelated to the fact that Mr Procopis communicated to the Chancellor information he had received (about the scandal). It was entirely appropriate for Mr Procopis to do this, as UQ policy identified his position as a receiver for disclosures of this nature."

As the only ARMS employee made redundant, Procopis must be feeling unlucky. An insider tells me Procopis never wanted to be a whistleblower. He was just doing his duty.

Until recently he was also chair of the Crime and Misconduct Commission's audit committee.

Who tipped him off remains a mystery. "The university will not disclose their identity," says Terry.


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