A yellowing newspaper lies on my shelf dated October 1, 2007 - a year before the election. It has been there because the lead item on the front page that day was headlined: "Nats may let landlords own state schools".

National Party leader John Key is considering using private developers to build and own new state schools, it began. He said private sector involvement was seriously under consideration for the party's education policy.

It quoted him directly. "I think it is entirely possible the private sector could build, own and maintain a property which is operated by the public sector. It has been done in Australia and has resulted in higher-quality premises at a lower cost to the country."

Leasing property is not a particularly radical step but the news quickened my pulse for the same reason as it spooked Labour and the teachers' unions. Both saw it as a precursor of privatisation and probably the end of public education as we know it.

Personally I'd welcome the end of public education as we know it, but the P-word had its desired effect. Nothing more was heard of the idea before the election and there has been no sign of it since.

Key has been more daring than I'd expected on a couple of fronts, especially accident compensation, employment law and, now, Auckland's local government. But education remains in a state of arrested development.

Key and his Education Minister, Anne Tolley, talk airily about raising standards and improving the information supplied to parents, and seem to think these can happen by ministerial edict without disturbing the status quo.

State schooling is a nominally free, egalitarian service largely run by a fiercely unionised teaching profession for the protection of its members. The profession lives in abiding fear of the idea that schools should compete to attract students, because that would threaten its control of the system's methods and philosophy, not to mention its members' job security, pay scales and career paths.

Competition for pupils would transfer power to parents whose values and priorities may not accord with the profession's educational wisdom, faddish though it is. The most popular and prestigious state schools are generally those that resist the profession's woolly nostrums.

Competition was developing like wildfire in Auckland in the 1990s after the previous National Government removed school zoning. Social mobility erupted right through the city as ambitious parents sent their children to the best schools that would take them.

The pace of change was such that, had it been allowed to continue, the pressure for all schools to emulate Auckland's grammar schools would have been irresistible.

It was all too much for the profession which did its utmost to help elect a Labour Government and Labour quickly restored zoning. Popular schools had to draw a line around themselves so that others wouldn't lose too many pupils.

A few days ago Auckland's most sought-after schools issued a public reminder that they are still captive in Labour's cage, chafing at the inability to give preference to the children of old pupils. But not only that.

Among the perverse social consequences of the profession's engineering is a reduction in the number of Maori and Pacific Island pupils at Auckland Grammar. Principal John Morris said they were 10 per cent of the roll in 1993, and 3.5 per cent now. The main beneficiaries of zone are the residential property owners within, mainly National voters who proclaim it a solemn right of every child to attend the nearest school.

Key will be reluctant to offend them, likewise his coalition partner Rodney Hide, MP for Epsom. But Act's deal with National supposedly has an "inter-party working group" considering ways to increase parental choice and school autonomy.

Unless the Government removes the profession's protections it will not achieve much else in education.

Mrs Tolley's edicts will be processed within the Education Ministry and the profession may find a way to implement them at no harm to its preferred practices. Or it might absorb and quietly ignore them.

Most of what happens in education has nothing to do with decisions of elected governments and their ministers. To anyone who followed the gestation of examination reforms from the 1980s it was amusing to see Lockwood Smith blamed for the NCEA.

He inherited an exercise that had the momentum of a glacier and would have been as hard to stop. He did the sensible thing, jumped on top, did his best to defend it and tried to smooth out a few of the more grating details.

If the Government is going to do anything it should act soon. The honeymoon will not last forever and the education profession is politically formidable. It genuinely believes that restricting school choice serves the cause of social equality.

It is unmoved by the high standards delivered to all sections of society by mature markets for practically everything else.