Monday, November 3, 2008

Debate About Free School Travel

In late 2008 it was suggested that the free travel passes provided to students through the School Travel Subsidy Scheme (STSS) be reduced. The SSTS has been operating for over 40 years and over 700,000 school children use this scheme to get to school and at an average cost of $700 per student per year. (SBS) .

It may be that Treasury were looking at ways of stemming the growth in the cost of the STSS which currently costs the state over $400m. They were thinking about introducing a fee for parents as a contribution to the cost of the scheme.

In January 2009 it was decided against the co-payment idea and the NSW Government made a commitment to fully fund the SSTS.

This is a complex issue and is not easy to debate because it gets tangled up in the debates around education policy, the merits of private versus public education and who should pay for that.

A reasonable principle should be that, from a social justice perspective, the goals of the Education policies should take priority over the development of the Transport policies - transport should be thought of as an 'enabler' of social policy.

We say this because some people argue against specialist high schools or the idea of 'choice' in education (the dezoning policy) or against the idea that the state should support private schools and one of the ways in which this argument manifests is arguing against providing free travel for students to access these things - people say "if people want to go to a specialist high school then they should pay for the travel".

The problem with this argument is that it doesn't allow for instances such as kids from low income families trying to improve their situation by going to a specialist high school or a private school (like Kevin Rudd). It also doesn't factor in things like kids who want to keep going to the same school even though their families have moved, or kids with special needs who need to travel to get to school, or kids with special cultural needs from various ethnic or religious populations, or overseas students, or kids avoiding bullying, rural and semi-rural kids. And some families are not very organised because they are effected by mental health, addictions or some other trauma or disability and this would make it very difficult for a kid from this type of family to get a parent co-payment organised. The point is, the debate is more nuanced than first appears and the temptation is to try and control education policy through transport policy and this is the wrong way around.

And this discussion is not even considering the cost shifts between the State and Commonwealth as more, or less, kids go to private schools or public schools.

If the cost of transporting kids to school is effected by a change in education policy then this is a negotiation that has to be done between these departments - after all they are in the same Government using the same State budget. For a thorough discussion of the issues look at the report from the Public Accounts Committee of the NSW Parliament here:

One of the most important things we learn from this enquiry (and from the subsequent Unsworth Enquiry) is that the State would save money simply from properly counting the number of times kids actually use their travel passes rather than the number of travel passes issued. But that's another story ...

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