The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) is a nutty right ‘think tank’ which was founded in 1943 partly in response to the collapse of the United Australia Party, the precursor to the Liberal Party. The IPA had its 70th anniversary in 2013 and in attendance were Gina Rinehart, Rupert Murdoch, Tony Abbott, George Pell, Michael Kroger, Mitch Fifield, George Brandis, Rod Kemp and John Roskam. The IPA advocates free market economic policies generally, including privatisation, deregulation of workplaces, trade liberalisation, abolition of the minimum wage, and the repeal of parts of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, lower taxation, privatisation of the ABC, and is against plain packaging for tobacco products. Like most nutty right wing ‘think tanks’, it also denies human induced climate change.
IPA’s major donors have included ExxonMobil, Caltex, Shell and Esso, Telstra, Western Mining, Phillip Morris, British American Tobacco and Visy Industries.
Aaron Lane is a PhD candidate at RMIT, and a ‘legal fellow’ at the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) who has had a rather chequered career. He was a Liberal Party candidate for the upper house in the Western Victoria Region, but he quit prior to a party meeting where it was expected he would be sacked. He had been a party member for more than a decade, but used the term ‘faggots’ in a tweet, and stated that “The problem is (IMO) many homos make their sexuality a defining aspect of their being”. He said later that he was not homophobic and that he regretted using such language. These depredations also led him to be sacked from his casual teaching job at Deakin University.
Lane has written an essay supposedly about how to improve education in Australia. In the essay, Lane uses the link “Research shows” which leads you to an essay by Frederick M. Hess that contains no original research, but is a commentary on recent analyses of educational outcomes from attempts at voucher systems in various parts of the USA. Hess is from the American Enterprise Institute, a neoconservative ‘think tank’ with current and former alumni including such luminaries as Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Dinesh D’Souza, Milton Friedman, David Frum, Newt Gingrich, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Irving Kristol, Richard Perle and Antonin Scalia. Most of the people who have been involved in the Institute are christian or jewish conservatives, Republicans or neoconservatives, or almost all of the above.
What is a voucher system? It is a system whereby a government funds a student to attend a school chosen by the student’s parents. This effectively places schools in competition with each other to attract students.
Hess starts off by noting that many former ‘school-choice’ champions have backed away from it, and argues that these champions and others ‘over-promised’ and that they adopted ludicrous standards for judging its success, such as improvements in reading and mathematics test scores. Really?
The drive for such a voucher system originated from an essay by Milton Friedman in 1955, which argued that the government would simply provide funding, while parents would retain the right to send their children to the schools of their choice. A pilot program was originally tried in Alum Rock, California, in the early 1970s, and was a failure, although Hess didn’t think it was sufficiently like his concept of a voucher system to be a valid test.
Hess states that the voucher advocates did not really get going until the 1980s, but in 2001, in Milwaukee, the Wisconsin state Governor stated that Milwaukee was going to “become the national model for renewing urban education”. However, Hess stated that ‘such rosy assessments’ would inevitably lead to results that disappointed. Hess also noted that few education economists have devoted their efforts to demonstrating the superiority of choice-based systems, and important questions have received little attention. I wonder why this is so.
Then Hess launches into the ‘data’, and first mentions several studies of voucher schools: The first showed ‘unambiguously’ that vouchers had a positive effect; the second stated that the effects did not differ statistically significantly from zero; the third, that voucher schools performed, overall, slightly worse than local district schools; the fourth, that there were no significant differences between voucher and district schools; the fifth, found that voucher schools serving students from lower socio-economic communities improved maths scores, but students from those serving higher socio-economic communities performed worse; the sixth found that differences between voucher schools and those of district schools showed no statistical difference.
Hess’ slant on these studies was that despite having no ‘short term’ impact of achievement, it does increase parental satisfaction. It is odd that this is considered to be a valid argument, and is akin to saying that being perpetually drunk is good because a drunk is happier than a sober person. Hess also states that it is a system of getting children from low socio-economic communities out of terrible urban schools into high quality private schools. This is a valid argument only because public schools are underfunded, a conservative tactic to make certain that private schools appear better.
Hess also refers to a study that was the subject of the book ‘The Education Gap’ by Peterson and others. They found that attending a voucher school had a positive effect on the test scores of black students, but not on those of white students. I suspect this says more about the United States itself, rather than the value of education vouchers. Hess believes that the ‘plausible’ conclusion is that students stuck in failing urban schools often benefit from moving to high quality private schools. Again, this is only a valid argument because public schools are underfunded.
Hess’ only aim is to infuse capitalism into education, by having some sort of choice in where parents send their children to school. This brings me back to Lane’s essay on how Australia should follow the US system. In that, he is clearly an enthusiast for the voucher system, because it has improved parental satisfaction and “improved achievement and school completion rates for the most disadvantaged Americans” (read ‘black students’). He then states that ‘school choice’ could be one way to lift Australia’s falling rankings in science, mathematics and reading. He then states that the ‘tired’ response is to call for more public funding, but that throwing money at a problem has not worked. How would we know? We have never tried it.
Lane then falls into the common dishonest conservative tactic of quoting dollar figures so as to generate fear or outrage: He stated that Education spending in 2005-2006 was $27.6 billion, while in 2014-2015 it was $43.3 billion, an increase of 56.9%. Horror! How can we cope with this increase? In reality this increase was from 4.91% of GDP in 2005 to 5.27% in 2013, which is a 7% increase, not the 56.9% Lane quotes. This is lying by omission and has been tried by Sussan Ley with regard to health expenditure. In addition, 5.27% is below the average of OECD nations of 5.9%.
The main aim of the IPA and those that support deregulation of education and just about everything else is to hand it over to those who are donors to conservative governments. The decline in education standards in Australia is precisely what conservative governments want, so that panicked parents and taxpayers will leap at anything to try to improve the situation. This is the way neoliberal governments work.
What the government does, is to underfund a service organisation, so that it cannot provide the service effectively, people get angry or disillusioned, the government proposes handing it over to private industry, the angry and disillusioned people who depend on the service acquiesce, in the hope that the service will improve. The government hands it over to private industry who cut back on costs, provides a less than optimum service, because their aim is not to provide a service, but to make a profit for their shareholders. Then that private industry donates money to the Liberal-National Coalition, and the Conservative money-laundering circle is complete.