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The free-market: bad for the economy but good for schools?

By Chris Bonnor - posted Thursday, 5 February 2009

When Kevin Rudd took over the leadership of the ALP he spoke convincingly about Australia having reached a fork in the road. Social democrats warmed to his theme, anticipating new and exciting ALP policy directions. Alas, the alternative road proved to go nowhere and Rudd fought an election on the road already neatly paved by Howard's own mix of opportunism and free-market ideology.

Now that the free-market road has developed serious potholes the PM has been emboldened to take centre stage in the allocation of blame and in the search for alternatives. While it might have been nice to hear his forthright comments a year or two ago they probably resonate well in an electorate smarting from reversals in personal well-being and nervous about the future.

The PM's analysis and vision is big: "This is a crisis spreading across a broad front" he says: an economic, employment, social and political crisis, even with long-term geo-political implications.


In parading the sins of the free-market he has reaffirmed the importance of government as the regulator and the funder or provider of public goods: "government offsets the inevitable inequalities of the market with a commitment to fairness for all", balancing the private and the public, profit and wages, the market and the state."

But Kevin Rudd should take a second look at the impact of free-market ideology at home. We have lost the public private balance and people are hurting: hapless commuters struggling to work on ramshackle public transport; public hospital staff and patients in despair; teachers and kids in public schools propped up by cash-strapped states while their private competition draws on multiple sources of funding and operates under different rules.

He needs to quickly discover what it is that decades of open and competitive markets have actually delivered for all the nation's children. We do have increased school competition and choice - but only for those who can afford it. He would find very little evidence of a consequential lift in student achievement - instead he would find that high achieving and low achieving students have been enticed or forced into very different schools, schools that are increasingly differentiated by family income and religion, even ethnicity.

He would have to confront the inevitable nasty and worsening equity gap which almost mocks his otherwise commendable efforts to narrow. He would find many other things that go with deregulation and public subsidy of private choice: inefficiency, duplication, waste, over-resourcing alongside chronic under-resourcing.

In short he would find the real long-term legacy of the free-market in his own backyard, in an area dear to his heart and to every other previous self-styled education prime minister or premier. Even better, armed with his new vision he now has an unrivalled opportunity to do something about it.

But he'll first have to revisit and rethink his own policy initiatives and "tough action" pronouncements on education. They have an eerie similarity with the same discredited free-market ideology: incessant student testing and school performance reporting, de-facto league tables and school competition, rhetoric about sacking staff and closing schools, performance pay … the list goes on.


Of course he might not do any of this. After all, the failure of the free-market in schooling is not as spectacular as market crashes and the human stories of loss. There are fewer headlines and no one dies in an under-funded school. The equity gaps which are created by both the free-market and acquiescent governments don't appear like earthquakes. They are incremental, but their social and community impact will linger long after the financial crash is a distant memory and the Prime Minister has secured a second or third term and maybe a place in history.

Mr Rudd has declared that "the time has come, off the back of the current crisis, to proclaim that the great neo-liberal experiment of the past 30 years has failed, that the emperor has no clothes". There are millions of Australians in public services such as schools, who have been beaten and bruised by a free-market ideology that has mocked their contribution and forced them to compete on an uneven playing field. They don't want to go back to being sole providers and they are not immune from essential reform - but they might like to see the PM put his money where his mouth is.

He has a big incentive to do this. He mocks neo-liberals "who now find themselves tied in ideological knots in being forced to rely on the state they fundamentally despise to save financial markets from collapse". It's one thing to strut the world stage with solutions to the current crisis of capitalism - but unless he applies these same solutions closer to home he'll be the one tied up in an ideological knot.

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About the Author

Chris Bonnor is a former principal and is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. His next book with Jane Caro, What makes a good school, will be published in July. He also manages a media monitoring website on education issues

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