Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Vouch for it

Jenny Macklin recently attacked the Government for the alleged failure of a voucher scheme aimed at helping kids struggling with reading to access tutorial services. The media release is noteworthy for two reasons: (1) it does not use the word 'extreme' in relation to the Howard Government; (2) it is blatantly hypocritical.

Macklin accuses the government of being wedded to ideology in preferring a market-based solution. So what? Markets work. Somebody tell Jenny that the Russians lost.

She then goes on to claim that the money spent on the vouchers should go directly to schools. Yet nowhere does she explain why money should be given to a school that presumably must take some of the blame for the poor kid failing in the first place.

Perhaps I'm being unfair to Macklin. Ideology assumes that you have a coherent framework guiding your judgments. Macklin's arguments are based purely on interest-group politics, in particular the interests of teachers over students.

Macklin's main claim is that the voucher initiative has failed because there has been a slack response in most states. However, this can almost entirely be blamed on State Labor governments, influenced by teacher unions.

To access the vouchers students had to be behind in their literary development. However, parents in some States didn't know how their kids' were going because Labor Governments refused to release results, so as to protect under-performing teachers. Eventually all relented but not until the rollout of the scheme was delayed.

Even then, many States refused to promote the scheme to interested parents. Queensland didn't notify parents at all, while Victoria sent out letters on September 12; the scheme closed on September 13.

And in NSW the teachers' union actively tried to inhibit the scheme. The Department of Education requested schools to provide facilities for tutors and students. The teachers unions responded by engaging in a campaign of 'civil disobedience' on the grounds of duty of care, security and cleaning arrangements (I kid not). Public education: "It's time to give student's less."

Fortunately, despite such 'extreme' opposition, the scheme is likely to run another year. Although take-up has been slow, the initial results are promising; nearly 90 per cent of parents are satisfied with the program. I've always thought that, given a chance, vouchers would be popular with the punters, hopefully this small scheme can start building a constituency.

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