Why We Value The Old School Tie

It’s a very Melbourne thing to be horrified by school fees – and there is much to be horrified about. The fees at Melbourne’s most expensive schools are pushing $30,000 per child.

But take a step back. These big fees are a positive sign of the financial seriousness that society takes educating the next generation. Before we get to discussing equality or standards or choice, let us agree, please, that spending money on education is good.

There’s a real sense in which anti-private school hostility has nothing to do with education, per se, in that some people are richer than others.

What is the hypothetical alternative to wealthy parents investing in their children’s education? That they splurge on holidays and cars? Hand the money over as inheritance? Buy property? Surely we can welcome the money being used to develop human capital.

The returns on education are vast. A better secondary education experience leads to more choice of tertiary education, which in turn can translate into higher earnings over a lifetime.

No wonder parents want to buy as much schooling as they can possibly afford.

Individual students reap most of the benefits from their education. But as education advocates constantly point out, society benefits too. A more educated population is a more innovative, productive, and ultimately prosperous population.

Thus some investment by wealthy parents on private education – over and above what is churned back to them through the taxation system – flows through to society as a whole.

All this makes the hyperventilating about private schooling that forms such a fundamental part of Melbourne’s intellectual life more than a little ridiculous.

In an Age column on Thursday, Julie Szego suggested private schools seem a little like a “con” for those parents who are “bleeding money on private school fees on the assumption this buys their child a competitive advantage”.

Perhaps if you imagine modern Australia as a dog-eat-dog fight for prestige, then every attempt to increase human capital formation looks like a brutal feeding frenzy.

But it’s true: there’s a puzzle here. While private schools get better year 12 results, a whole host of evidence shows that once researchers control for things such as family background, the education level of parents, peer performance and so forth, many differences in results between private schools and public schools substantially decrease. Educated and engaged parents are likely to have educated and engaged kids, regardless of what school those kids are sent to.

So are parents being irrational when they send their kids to private schools? Of course not.

In many ways, by paying for private education, parents are buying their children friends. Who you go to school with matters. It is better have classes with peers that brag about doing too much study than too little. In his new book, Our Kids, social scientist Robert Putnam argues that in the United States peer effects cause a large part of education disparities.

Also, education is about more than test scores. All we know about why parents choose individual schools relates that choice to a school’s values, facilities, extracurricular activities, location, or how nurturing or driven the staff are. In other words, how good a fit it is for their child.

Rather than obsessing about the riches hidden behind the private-school fence, why not focus on how to make public schools more appealing?

Public schools would be more competitive against private schools if governments allowed more variation between schools, granted them more independence, and made it easier for more children to attend schools outside their geographic school zones. Remember, it isn’t just money and test scores driving demand for private education.

The obsession with the most expensive schools ignores those smaller, cheaper private schools blossoming around Melbourne, offering marginal improvements and more choice than that offered by the public system.

Funny how the debate about equality is always focused on the lifestyles of the rich, rather than the living standards of the poor.

The Age reported last week some private schools are taking legal action against families who fail to pay fees owed. But by all accounts private schools go out of their way to be lenient on payment. If you’re going to be in debt to anyone, you’d want it to be a school.

After all, it’s hard to imagine much sympathy for families that, for instance, did not pay a builder for a renovation and were subsequently taken to court.

Such is the moral baggage around private schooling that recouping debt fairly incurred is seen as some sort of ethical violation – yet another black mark against these malevolent institutions.

All that fury, all that outrage, directed towards what? Too much money spent on education?