A clash over values in Australia

When Prime Minister John Howard recently said that parents were moving children out of the public school system because it was "too politically correct and too values-neutral," he stirred up a hornet's nest of controversy - not unlike a similar debate that has long brewed in the United States.

Some Australians said Mr. Howard was hankering after a bygone era of the 1940s and 1950s - students raising the flag in the schoolyard, boys taking carpentry lessons, girls sent to cooking classes.

For others, however, images of the past are accompanied by darker memories: Aboriginal kids bullied and bashed in school and the White Australia Policy taught in history class.

But for many, the real issues are questions of values inculcation that also divide many parents in the US: Should public schools permit Christmas pageants and other religious displays? How much patriotism should they teach? And is too much celebration of European culture a snub to Aboriginal traditions?

Recently, the federal government has signaled its discontent with the way many public schools answer these questions.

In a much-discussed recent interview with the newspaper The Australian, Howard said, "It's a reflection of the extent to which political correctness overtook this country....

"Some schools think you have offended people by having Nativity plays." He blamed an "increasingly antiseptic view ... taken about a whole lot of things.

"Instead of celebrating what we have achieved as a nation or recognizing the benefits of Australia's Anglo-Celtic Western tradition, students are taught that all cultures should be equally valued," fumed Kevin Donnelly, former director of Education Strategies and current chief of staff to the employment minister, in an opinion piece that also appeared in The Australian.

At the same time, Federal Education Minister Brendon Nelson stirred controversy when he suggested that the national anthem be sung in schools and the Australian flag raised in the playground - practices that were dropped with in the 1960s.

And there are signs that Australian parents may be equally discontent - although perhaps for a different set of reasons.

Over the past few decades, a growing number have plucked their children out of the public school system.

Private school attendance has climbed to 32 percent from 22 percent in the 1970s. In grades 11 and 12, the number of students in private schools now approaches 40 percent.

There has also been a surge in inexpensive private Christian schools, some charging as little as a couple of thousand dollars for annual tuition. Religious philosophy tends to pervade their curricula.

Some parents do worry about the "values-neutral" state of public schools, agrees Brian Cowling, principal of the Thomas Hassell Anglican College in Sydney.

"I think we have seen a shift in the ideological position - there has been an over-sensitivity toward multiculturalism [in the public school system], and instead of having all kinds of discussion about religion, there is zero discussion."

But many parents are primarily worried about the quality of public education, Mr. Cowling says.

"Fact is, I don't think people are that fussed about religion," he says. "In my school there are Muslims, Christians, and Hindus, Yugoslavs, Syrians, Middle East - and what their parents want from the school is to deliver consistent quality. If there is a little bit about the Scriptures thrown in, then they don't mind."

Private schools have deep roots in Australia. The country's early schools were a combination of private and Catholic schools, with government-funded education not making significant headway until the 1880s.

Today, Australian states spend nearly $16 billion on public schools, with Canberra chipping in another $1.8 billion, according to the government's productivity commission. In comparison, the federal government spends $3.3 billion to supplement the fees that private-school parents pay.

Some educators are clamoring for a larger portion of federal funds to shift to what many see as the real problem with public schools - understaffed and overcrowded classrooms.

Cathy Mooney, a former public school teacher who once firmly believed in state schools, transferred her children to the private system when she realized that they were not learning much.

"Students were smoking in the science laboratory, and no homework was being given in the English class," says Ms. Mooney.

"It's not a question of textbooks or bad curriculum, it's simply a question of quality education."

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