An Interview with Kevin Donnelly: Speaking on School Choice, Charters and Change

Jan 4, 2012 by

Dr Kevin Donnelly is one of Australia’s leading education commentators

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1) Kevin, I understand that you are about to present at a conference here in the States- when will this be and where will it be?

As an Australian educationalist that has argued in favour of school choice and a more market driven approach to education I am both excited and honoured to be a keynote speaker at a forthcoming international conference on school choice. The Inaugural International School Choice and Reform Academic Conference is being held at the Nova Southeastern University, 3301 College Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, between Saturday 14 January to Tuesday 17 January, 2012. Details about the conference can be found at

2) The topic of the conference is school choice – why does this issue continue to come up?

Education systems across the world are striving to find better ways to strengthen schools, raise standards and to ensure that schools best serve the needs and aspirations of their communities. One of the more exciting and innovative approaches relates to school choice – a situation where schools are given greater autonomy at the local level and where parental choice is supported. Research associated with identifying the characteristics of stronger performing education systems, as measured by international tests like TIMSS and PISA, suggests that two of the defining characteristics are school autonomy and school choice as represented by the presence of both government and non-government schools.

Whether charter schools and vouchers in the US, city academies and free schools in England or autonomous schools in Sweden and the Netherlands, the reality is that school choice is front and centre as an education policy issue. Australia provides an illuminating example of the benefits of school choice as our non-government schools (that have greater autonomy and flexibility compared to state controlled schools) outperform government schools. Such is the popularity of non-government schools that approximately 32% of Australian students attend such schools – helped by the fact that Australia has a de facto voucher system where non-government schools receive government funding from both state and federal governments.

3) Kevin, here in the states there seems to be a argument between ” vouchers ” ( however you define them ) and ” charter schools “. What are the MAIN issues in Australia?

Many of the debates in the US, around such issues as school choice, accountability and testing, performance based pay for teachers and having as national curriculum, are also occurring in Australia. Part of the impetus for such debates is the fact that while Australian students perform quite well in international tests we are always outperformed by a handful of other countries, such as Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Finland and the Netherlands. There is also the fact that despite the substantial increase in funding over recent years, literacy and numeracy standards have failed to show any significant improvement.

At the moment, there is a federally commissioned review of school funding that is investigating current funding arrangements for government and non-government schools and the review has ignited a good deal of public debate and argument. Those opposed to non-government schools argue that such schools should not be funded, while non-government school supporters argue that parents have the right to choose where their children go to school and the choice, diversity and autonomy in education are beneficial.

4) Kevin, I have been to Sydney and the blue mountains of Australia, and can attest to the fact that your country does attempt to provide for those with special needs. How does the school choice issue impact parents with children with special needs?

In Australia, debates about school choice are especially important when it comes to students with special needs. Under the current system students with special needs attending government schools receive significantly more funding than students who attend non-government schools. Parents who decide to send their special needs children to non-government schools are discriminated against and the issue was an election issue during our most recent federal election, where one of the major parties argued that school vouchers should be provided for special needs students.

5) Who are some of the other individuals presenting?

The Fort Lauderdale school choice conference has a number of US and international keynote speakers and presentators, including Dr Terry Moe, Dr Frederick Hess, myself and Dr Robert Fox. A full list of participants can be found at

6) Now what specific issues do you see as being paramount?

In addition to the issue of school choice I think it is vital to understand and evaluate how recent and future educational reforms impact on classroom teachers and the nature and quality of students’ educational experiences. One of the problems faced in Australia is attracting and keeping good teachers in the profession, and recent initiatives like increased testing and publicly ranking schools have had a negative impact on teachers.

Increasing centralized and bureaucratic control in areas like the curriculum and testing have also forced a one size-fits-all model of education on schools that stifles innovation and diversity.

7) What have I neglected to ask?

The upcoming conference is especially relevant to K-12 policy makers, teachers and scholars interested in school choice and what is happening both in the US and overseas. The conference provides a timely and practical way to learn more about recent school choice research and to network amongst colleagues. As previously mentioned, conference details can be found at

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