The Labor Essayists: Chalmers, Rudd and the failing market of schoolsMar 10, 2023
There are echoes of Kevin Rudd’s 2009 essay in Jim Chalmers recent tome. Themes of social justice, equity and fairness still resonate. But this time around, Labor needs to think beyond the lofty ideas to confront what it all means for Australia’s schools.
Both essays followed crises that exposed and exacerbated inequalities on a domestic and international scale. Such times encourage big thinking. In his essay ‘The Global financial crisis’ Rudd targeted 30 years of neoliberalism. Chalmers (‘Capitalism after the crisis’) now seeks to give capitalism a human face.
It is timely to see Chalmers’ effort in the context of Rudd’s effort in 2009. Rudd’s essay seemed to create many breaks with the past, but the following few years revealed a considerable gap between his essay and what happened next.
Nothing shows this more than school education. Labor promised a review of school funding, but it was over two years before the education minister, Julie Gillard, announced it, while issuing restrictions on what it could do. When the eventual review concluded, Labor didn’t address its much watered-down recommendations for yet another year.
Rudd the essayist complained about governments that were “notoriously reluctant to identify and respond to instances of market failure”, but in the end his own government, and that of Gillard, barely impacted on the failing market of schools.
Consequently, this failure is still with us. Rudd’s ideal world was one in which “the state intervenes to reduce the greater inequalities that competitive markets will inevitably generate”. In school education, however, this intervention was riddled with caveats and compromises. Yes, successive governments were committed to the idea of equity funding; but we are still waiting. Meanwhile, the situation has deteriorated significantly over the last decade.
The lingering reality is that both sides of politics continue to assume that the neoliberal gospel of choice and competition will work for schools. Governments have stood on the sideline as unregulated competition between schools has accelerated segregation of school enrolments, with regressive impacts on overall student achievement. Their main intervention is to mandate school reforms which don’t seem to have made much difference.
Choice and competition between schools has done nothing for innate school quality. Instead, they prioritise attracting preferred enrolments, those students who will enhance a school’s profile. It has always been an unequal competition. Three decades ago, those schools which were behind the starting line when the competition gun went off have ended up being further behind – creating more winners and losers among children, schools and communities. The uneven playing field has created a neoliberal’s dream and a social democrat’s worst nightmare.
Rudd wrote how social justice is founded on the argument that all human beings have an intrinsic right to human dignity, equality of opportunity and the ability to lead a fulfilling life. The foundations for this, or for something alarmingly different, are families and schools.
Enter Jim Chalmers.
It is refreshing to see another politician looking well beyond the electoral cycle, coming up with insights of great relevance to the education system.
A strong theme for Chalmers is inclusion: “economic inclusion is the measure of a decent society [and] is also a precondition for a robust economy, … it makes our economies stronger”. If he makes any transition from words to policy he could start with schools. It is exclusion, not inclusion, that drives the school market. Only public schools are inclusive, and not even all of them.
Unregulated exclusion should disturb any economist interested in productivity. Our system of schools is hardly productive, being characterised by inefficiencies bordering on profligate waste, evident in the facilities arms race and overservicing at one end, and a lingering inequity at the other. Australia duplicates its provision of schools in the interests of choice, but only for those who can pay. Little of this translates into higher student achievement.
Chalmers states that inclusion “is fundamental to the health of democracies”. By any measure, the health of democracies is poorly served by a system of schools which exhibits all the characteristics of class-based divisions. Our school system now reduces the prospect of students learning in inclusive and diverse schools, in the process reducing the likelihood that they will emerge more resilient, with superior social literacy to become better citizens.
Chalmers states “there are ways to protect essential public goods and direct investment to areas where there are financial and social returns available”. School education is a key public good, where investment brings economic benefits.
The need for greater equity is at the core. He is explicit in stating “A failure to deal with inequity is a handbrake on our economic potential. This is wilful neglect with economic and social consequences”. In addressing this reality, Chalmers needs to start inside his own tent. In 2013 Labor wasn’t united on implementing what was left of ‘Gonski’ and continue to drag the chain.
Far too often, Labor politicians seem to pay homage to John Howard’s constituency – the now one third of voters who have bought into exclusivity. It may have worked in the past but can now easily be seen as wilful neglect of public education families – a neglect with serious economic, social and democratic implications.
Many of these implications will seem familiar. While our NAPLAN and PISA performance stagnate or go backwards, the rate of mental health issues among students rises. Our social cohesion is being undermined and we risk raising a generation locked out or held back by the system from kindergarten. As Chalmers states: “The political fracturing in the United States, for example, was built out of a group of people feeling they had been left behind: the jobs of the future were for other people’s kids, social shifts didn’t align with their views, and they faced entrenched disadvantages”. Are we that far behind this scenario?
Where to from here? Chalmers suggests we” reimagine and redesign markets”.
However, leadership studies agree that strategy is eighty per cent execution. That is, putting ideas (the why?) into action (what? how? when? what if…?). Rudd and Gillard fell well short in their execution. Perhaps Chalmers is of a different ilk. Under strong leadership, through stakeholder engagement, the education market could be redesigned.
A different future can be imagined. While many parents have chosen exclusivity in the current failed market, they might equally respond if there was a level playing field with stronger local schools for local kids, rebuilding neighbourhoods and communities. They would be well served by properly resourced and staffed schools, with a diverse student body, a rich extra-curricular program, producing great academic and social outcomes. All this within walking distance or a short commute; happy kids, less pressured parents.
Both Rudd in 2009 and Chalmers today have articulated a commendable vision. Both have been criticised for their lack of detail and a disconnect between vision and policy. Labor could start now by brokering a conversation about how to turn dreams into a semblance of reality, starting with the very foundations, our framework of schools.