Schools Schools funding wars not over yet

  • By Rachel Power
  • This article was published more than 2 years ago.
  • 13 Sep 2021

On 22 August, The Age ran a front-page report that the air quality in many Victorian classrooms – sites for several recent coronavirus outbreaks – is two and a half times worse than recommended levels. In the face of this need, it beggars belief that our federal government continues to reject calls to provide capital works funding for public schools, while at the same time shovelling taxpayer dollars towards ever more luxurious citadels for the elite. By contrast, US President Biden has launched a $130 billion package, including for ventilation, to keep schools open.

Soon after his election in 2018, Morrison announced a $4.6bn deal for the Catholic and independent school sectors, which were unhappy with the Gonski 2.0 funding arrangements – on top of the $12bn a year already directed at the private school sector – to “end the funding wars”. This year, the federal government gave Catholic and private schools a $1.9bn capital works special deal, not to mention last year’s $10m towards improving COVID-19 hygiene measures. All this, while refusing to provide a single dollar towards maintenance and infrastructure, not to mention urgent COVID-related safety measures, for our public schools.

In June, an investigation by The Age showed that, between 2015 and 2019, the country’s most prestigious private schools had accumulated assets at a greater rate than the property market or the stock exchange. Together, Australia’s 50 richest private schools are now worth an astounding $8.5 billion – the total value of their assets soaring by more than 40% – helped by rising school fees, alumni donations, a building boom, surging stock-market returns and government funding. 

Recent reports have shown that 17 of Victoria’s most prestigious schools have also shared $80m in federal JobKeeper funds. For one school, JobKeeper revenue almost matched its $6.6m surplus for 2020. Many of these schools are spending tens of millions on facilities, assisted by the $600m-plus in federal subsidies received annually by those ‘top 50’ schools alone. 

The income of Catholic and independent schools has grown six to eight times faster than that of public schools since 2009.

Recent figures published by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) showed that the income of Catholic and independent schools has grown six to eight times faster than that of public schools since 2009, chiefly due to the rapid rise in government funding. And this advantage is set to accelerate over the rest of the decade. By 2029, public schools will be underfunded to the tune of $60 billion, while private schools will be overfunded by $6 billion.

And yet, despite ever-increasing taxpayer investment in private schools, this money does not come with any of the strict obligations placed on public schools. Private schools are free to discriminate – not only by setting fees, but by vetting the students they enrol. Like his Liberal predecessors, Morrison loves to justify money for independent schools as ensuring “choice remains affordable”, but there has been zero evidence that increased public funding does anything to decrease fees.

Public schools, on the other hand, are increasingly being asked to do more with less – despite being required to enrol all-comers, and to educate the vast majority of disadvantaged students. A decade ago, the Gonski Report found that achievement gaps in literacy between those from low versus high socioeconomic backgrounds could amount to as much as three years of schooling. Ongoing inequity in government support will make it virtually impossible to reduce this achievement gap.

Federal education minister Alan Tudge is all too ready to blame teachers for Australia’s slide in international rankings of student performance.

According to OECD reports, Australia has one of the most segregated school systems in the world. While comparable countries have a private school sector, very few of these schools receive public funding. And not only is our “school resourcing … less equitable than other nations”, Australian teachers have bigger classes and more teaching hours than the OECD average.

And yet, federal education minister Alan Tudge is all too ready to blame teachers for Australia’s slide in international rankings of student performance, arguing that schools should receive less funding and teachers should just be better at their jobs. Results cannot be attributed to a lack of funding, he claims, because “the quality of the teaching, the rigour of the curriculum and the discipline in the classroom are what matter most”.

Minister Tudge says Australia should look to the UK, which has lifted results in the past 10 years while cutting education spending. He fails to mention that private schools in the UK receive no government funding. Let alone note the success of Nordic countries like Finland, where the education system is designed to strive for equity not excellence – and yet, achieves excellence as a result.

Morrison wants to convince Australians that his government is merely supporting ‘choice’ while actually offering no fair choice at all. Australia cannot continue to call itself an egalitarian nation while such obscene amounts of public money are being used to prop up a system of gross inequity.

In the lead up to the next election, the union will be urging all members to sign up to its Every School, Every Child campaign and help demand proper and fair funding for public schools as they so rightly deserve.

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