‘Policy windows open infrequently, and do not stay open long. Despite their rarity, the major changes in public policy result from the appearances of these opportunities‘ John Kingdon
Policy windows are not dichotomous. There are degrees to which opportunities become available. The emphasis placed on windows of opportunities in agenda setting belies all the other factors at play. Some of these factors are reflected in the punctuated equilibrium model (Jones and Baumgartner 2005) and the advocacy coalition framework advocated by Sabatier (Parsons 1995, pp.194-203). Further in the background are the social and economic contexts in which agenda setting is made (Considine 2005). The development of a national curriculum for all Australian schools is just one more step in an incremental process (Lindblom 1959) of the federalism of education and illustrates how policy setting is subjected to all of these theories. Often the window of opportunity is not open for long but at times it can be gradually wedged further open until it is permanently stuck in place. Changes in federal education policy kept disrupting the status quo in the various states little by little, so that now a major reform like national curriculum is achievable.
Kingdon uses the analogy of space as providing launch opportunities to demonstrate how windows provide opportunities in political systems (1995, p.166). He sees the window only opening when three strands come together. For a policy to be chosen from the “policy primeval soup” (p.123), it depends what is floating on top when the other two strands align, the problem strand and the political strand. A problem has to be noticed, become prevalent and at the same time be a change in the political landscape, such as a transfer of personnel in power (p.174). Some would see the writing of a national curriculum as meeting these three criteria, particularly with a change from the Howard Government to the Rudd Government in December 2007.
National curriculum has repeatedly been floated as policy but Kingdon’s supporters would see it failing due to the window being closed. Instead it just needed further opening. The perceived problem with separate state curriculums are mainly geographic and economic. A national curriculum will allow greater mobility for students and teachers across Australia and economically the education process will be streamlined and opportunities with greater economies of scale (Reid 2005). There really hasn’t been an event to bring the problem to light other than politicians making grand announcements about how necessary it is to have a national curriculum. There’s a bigger picture to the story that other theorists can explain better than via an over simplified three stream window of opportunity.
It is easy to apply Kingdon’s window of opportunity theory to the Building Education Reform when Prime Minister Rudd pledged $16.2 billion to fund buildings in school in the 2009 Budget (Australian Government Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations 2011). There had been much said over the years about inadequate buildings for schools (Milburn and Green 2005) so Kingdon’s first stream, the problem, had existed for some time. However, due to the expensive nature of such infrastructure it was overlooked as a prime concern for the federal policy agenda. Then Kingdon’s third stream came into play, the Global Financial Crisis under Keynesian theory required a large spending program by the federal government, an answer looking for a problem and thus a policy was born.
However, when it comes to developing a national curriculum a window of opportunity is less obvious. This is partly because the changes have been incremental, as so often it is when it comes to budgetary decisions (Jones & Baumgartner, 2005, p325). Federal government provides nine per cent of public school government funding (with the states providing the other 91 per cent) but a higher percentage to private schools (Hinz 2010). At first school funding was organised on an ‘ad hoc’ basis with projects such as Commonwealth Science Laboratories (1964) and Commonwealth Libraries (1968) (Lingard 2000, p.25). Under Whitlam the funding arrangement became more formalised with general funding instead of distinct projects (Lingard 2000, pp.25-26).
The 1980s saw an increasing move towards federalism of education due to Labor seeking a platform for its social justice agenda in conjunction with the pressure of globalisation (Lingard & Porter 1997,pp.15-18). These social and economic changes are the key to “policy interventions” (Considine 2005). In a summation of the academic writers of the time, McCollow and Graham said “since the mid-1980s, education policy has been increasingly seen as a part of the agenda for micro-economic reform, designed to make Australia’s economy more internationally competitive” (1997, p.61). This capitalist approach signifies a shift of power from a pluralist approach on a consultative committee basis within each state, where government was assumed to be making neutral decisions, to a situation of Lukes’ third dimension of power where the ideas of globalisation and capitalism were dictating the policy agenda for education at the federal level (Dudley & Vidovich 1995, p.25). This was in effect reducing the power of the states over their own education policies, particularly when federal policies were tied to funding.
According to Fenna (2005, pp.130-131), one of the more famous pluralists, Lindblom, conceded that the pluralist process favoured the power of business in a capitalist society and thus narrowed the gap between pluralism and Marxism. Perhaps it was also a case that as the world became more globalised the federal government was seeking ways to reassert its authority which fits the structuralist approach Hancock (2008, p.4) describes as the statist view.
Dror (1964, p.154) argued forLindblom’s incrumentalism theory to work that present policy must be mainly satisfactory, the existing problems must be ongoing and the means for solving the problem readily available. This is beautifully applied to development in federal education policy. Education is fundamentally on firm ground as a desired public good. A continuous issue with education, however, is the insatiable desire to achieve better outcomes by all participants in the policy process. The states have individually developed different systems in their striving for better outcomes, within budgetary constraints, and there lies a secondary ongoing problem, the incongruous systems. Federalism has been consistently touted as a solution for both of these problems and more.
Dror (1964, p.154) went on to say that “Changes in knowledge-technological and behavioral-put at the disposal of policy makers new means of action, which, unless ignored, lead to radically new policies”. This is evident in the Digital Education Revolution policy where some of the states in conjunction with the federal government are introducing a 1:1 laptop program to public schools (NSW Government Education and Training 2011). The technology enabled government to make a radical change in the education process, not like the small shifts to which Lindblom refers in his incrementalism theory.
The incremental changes towards more federal involvement in education policy was aided by disruptions to what would otherwise be a fairly stable policy, particularly regarding national curriculum. This falls under the punctuated equilibrium model proposed by Baumgartner and Jones in 1993 where change can come about once policy is disrupted (Parsons 1995, pp.203-206). Jones and Baumgartner (2005, p.325) themselves declared incrementalism to be “the foundation of punctuated equilibrium”. Every time prominent politicians – Fraser, Dawkins, Nelson, Bishop, Rudd, Gillard (Lingard 2000, Reid 2005, Hinz 2010) – promoted national curriculum as being desirable it disrupted the status quo regarding the states’ hold on school curriculum. It was only when Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister with a Labor Government that national curriculum actually began to be written. This fits Kingdon’s window of opportunity due to change of federal government and friendly state governments: “A problem is recognized, a solution is developed and available in the policy community, a political change makes it the right time for policy change, and potential constraints are not severe” (Kingdon 1995, p.165).
Yet a better fit than Kingdon’s window are the two forces Baumgartner and Jones declare to be underpinning the punctuated equilibrium model, policy image and the institutions involved (Parsons 1995, pp.203-204). Media outlets generally reported support of Rudd’s to national curriculum comparing his pluralist approach to the policy as opposed to the Howard government’s plan to impose national curriculum (AAP 2007). Government language carefully promotes giving power to the people in its propaganda regarding policy change in education, thereby promoting a pluralist view. For instance, “MySchool has provided parents, teachers and the community with nationally consistent robust information about how schools are faring, where they are doing well and areas that need improvement” (Gillard, J & Crean, S, 2010). In doing so they ironically fit Colebatch’s (2006) authoritative choice (p.5) and social construction (p.7). By promoting national curriculum as being for the community it allows voters to feel safe in our education system.
The most important institution involved in the federalism of education had been hatched decades earlier through the development of a state and federal collaborative body, the Australian Education Council (AEC), which later became Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA) (Lingard et al 1995). It was therefore no great shift from collaborating on research and national testing to national curriculum. Now in addition to MCEETYA the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) has been established via legislation at the end of 2008 (Australian Government Com Law 2008) and the Board in May 2009 (ACARA 2009) to administer national curriculum and take over some of MCEETYA’s responsibilities such as national testing.
The advocacy coalition framework (ACF), promoted by Paul Sabatier, places policy in the context of values and beliefs, “the ACF explicitly identifies beliefs as the causal driver
for political behavior” (Weible et al 2009, p.122). It has already been said that the Labor Government of the 1980s were looking at education as a social justice agenda but also holding an increasing corporatism view and statist view of federal government dominating the states. John Howard as Prime Minister wielded his personal ideology on education policy as seen, for example, in his linking funding to flying the Australian flag at schools (Clark, A 2006). In fact, one of the factors that brought national curriculum back on the agenda during Howard’s reign was his objection to the way history was being taught in schools (Grattan, M & Green, S 2006).
The ACF framework can be applied to the education policy changes in the 1980s. The stable parameters involve the education system itself, the external system is the increasing globalisation of the world and the prevalence of economic rationalism and the constraints mainly being the states resisting federal government stepping on their turf. It is only in 2007 that the long-term opportunity arose due to bipartisan support in federal parliament for a national curriculum.
Considine’s article, Analysing the Policy Context (2005), neatly provides background for these incremental steps gradually opening the policy window to allow national curriculum to fly in. The social and economic conditions were favourable, there were historical alignments with Labor in power federally and in most states and the established relationship of the federal government funding of education linked to various actions providing the policy instrument. The collaborative group, MCEETYA had been developing policy for some time and were able to act as a source of integration until ACARA was founded.
Motivated by a desire for dominance over the states and economic rationalism aiming to reduce the costs of multiple education systems over the last 30-40 years, the federal government has sought to take power over education in Australia. The current development of national curriculum by ACARA is a major step in the federalism of education. This has been enabled by the alignment of political parties in power and a generally bipartisan approach and the wielding of big players in the political domain. The institutions (AEC, MEETYA, ACARA) established in the wake of a political upheaval by these politicians brought together the various stakeholders to work towards a common goal. Overall, it is the beliefs and values underpinning education policy that support a national approach. All parents want is what’s best for their children and national curriculum brings together nationalistic pride and individualistic aspirational goals. The states have provided many obstacles to date and quite probably will in the future. However, federal government policy will dominate in the end, enabled by all the incremental changes over the years as power was chipped away in return for funding.
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Special thanks to Bronwyn Hinz (@BronwynHinz) and Maralyn Parker (@MaralynParker) for conversing with me on this topic on Twitter.
This essay received a Distinction (73/100).