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Liberty Belle: Launching "Let Parents Choose"

Deborah Coddington's Liberty Belle

Launching "Let Parents Choose"

Last night we held the first launch of "Let Parents Choose", a little book I wrote while I was at Cambridge University as a Wolfson Press Fellow researching the Dutch and Swedish system of freedom in education.

I call it the first launch, because I'm about to embark on a nationwide tour promoting the book and ACT's education policy. This will involve a radical shift in thinking by some people. We've been conditioned in this country to believe the government knows best. How could parents have freedom to choose the school that's best for their child? Surely only the Ministry and Minister of Education can decide that for us?

Well, if that's the case, how come parents of children who go to private schools are capable of choosing the school they think is best, but parents in poor families can't?

In my book I have reprinted some of the dialogue between Sir Humphrey, the quintessential Orwellian control freak bureaucrat in that excellent television series "Yes Prime Minister", and the Prime Minister and his wife. The PM excitedly calls Sir Humphrey in to breakfast because he's discovered how to solve the education problem - "I'm going to let parents take their children away from schools. They will be able to move them to any school they want."

Well this is a radical idea. Sir Humphrey is not amused, despite the fact that his parents could choose for him to attend Winchester school: "you can't expect ordinary people to know where to send their children."

This is the same patronising attitude that Milton and Rose Friedman encountered when they first started championing freedom of choice for parents in 1955 in the United States. In 1980 they wrote that a fundamental way to improve schooling is to allow parents to have more choice "to give all parents greater control over their children's schooling, similar to that which those in the upper-income classes now have. Parents generally have both greater interest in their children's schooling and more intimate knowledge of their capacities and needs than anyone else. School reformers, and education reformers in particular, often self-righteously take for granted that parents, especially those who are poor and have little education themselves, have little interest in their children's education and no competence to choose for them. This is a gratuitous insult."

The Friedman's argument that 'do-gooders' underestimate the capacity of poor parents to exercise choice when it comes to their children's education is relevant today in New Zealand. I recently received an email from a New Zealander which said: "The idea of quality educational reform through parent choice wont [sic] work simply because in NZ at least, most parents are stupid!"

Well, as Joy Quigley, executive director of Independent Schools of New Zealand said in her press release: "Deborah Coddington's excellent book resulting from her Cambridge study could equally be entitled 'Let the Poor Choose Too'."

Joy Quigley continued: "Not every school suits every local child. There should be an option for poor children as well as those from better off families to exercise choice in where they go to school. Scholarships are certainly one answer. Ms Coddington argues that if the money were to follow the child then some schools may close, while others would open, but surely wasting some buildings is better than wasting the lives of a group of children by condemning them to an inferior education in a badly performing school."

Joy's exactly right. But I don't even think buildings would be wasted. There are a growing number of parents and teachers out there who are fed up with the education system in this country. They are sick of the politically correct dogma force-fed their children. They are sick of the bullying and misery their children have to suffer. They are home schooling (if they can afford to pay the fees charged by the Correspondence School at the Government's behest) or they are desperately fighting for their children to get a better chance.

Under ACT's policy these parents could pool their funding and open new schools. Teachers could form co-operatives and instead of being paid what their unions manage to negotiate for them, just enough to get the last man on board, they could pay their best teachers more. They could use the flexibility of funding to attract good teachers back into the classroom, or away from other schools.

This is a revolution whose time has come. Hon Nick Smith, National's education spokesman, issued a press release supporting 'Let Parents Choose' and agreeing with the fundamental right for every parent to have choice.

Last night I got the same feeling I had when I launched my first Sex Offender Index - I sensed an appetite for change. Sure, it was a tough battle, but I knew I was right to raise the debate. I fought hard to get my Bill through its first reading and on its way to become law.

I will be fighting just as hard, if not harder, to reform education in this country.

As Hon Richard Prebble said last night at the launch: "The evidence is that school choice is not only right, it's a practical positive policy that works. It's said that all successful campaigns can be traced back to someone writing a book. The 'someone' for school choice is Deborah Coddington; the book is 'Let Parents Choose', and school choice is the campaign we are launching here today."

Yours in liberty,
Deborah Coddington

If you would like a copy of my book, "Let Parents Choose", just send me a cheque for $15.00. to; Freepost, Private Bag 18888, Parliament Buildings, Wellington.

Liberty Belle is a column from Deborah Coddington, Member of Parliament for ACT New Zealand.

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