For everyone Equity the path to excellence

When it comes to schools funding, arguing about whether private school parents are just “ordinary Australians” completely misses the point.

Whenever something changes in the world of school funding, the conversation seems to quickly turn from the importance of public education to petty arguments about whether or not all private school parents are wealthy. One recent example in The Saturday Paper sparked a flurry of debate by suggesting Australia should follow Finland’s example and ban private schools altogether in order to improve the public system. Private schools, Elizabeth Farrelly asserted, are both a symptom and driver of the growing inequity in Australia.

In response, many online comments highlighted the obvious problem of the current education funding model favouring private schools. This, in turn, provoked the all too familiar arguments about private schools allegedly “saving the public purse”; that taking any funding away from private schools (i.e. making things fairer) will only push up fees, making life more expensive for many “ordinary Australians”.

What those arguments always miss is that it’s ordinary Australians – the majority of whom will never send their kids to an independent school – who already fork out millions via their taxes to keep private schools afloat. Worse, many overfunded private schools get more public money than they can use while our state schools are struggling to make ends meet.

This inequity came to the fore again following the Albanese government’s recent pledge to close the schools funding gap. On the face of it, this was great news. Even better was the subsequent news that WA was committing to being the first state to fully fund its public schools.

But there was a catch. It turned out that promising 100% of the SRS would still leave WA public schools short-changed by around 4%. The pledge didn’t address a loophole that states have been exploiting ever since the Coalition opened it. State governments can claim that funds have been spent on schools when they’ve been put towards capital depreciation, regulatory costs, or transport. In other words, a sizeable chunk of money allocated to public schools never reaches its intended target.


Through our taxes, we are effectively contributing to the unfair advantage of the least needy children.

The Age quoted economist Adam Rorris, who described the loophole as “a rort” that “only applies to public schools, not the privates”. And, at 14% (including the 4%), the funding gap for Victoria’s public schools is among the worst in the country. While government schools are being short-changed by up to $6.5 billion a year, private schools are getting every cent earmarked for them, and more. And their funding grows year-on-year, so these institutions will continue to be overfunded until at least the end of the decade.

This is only one of the ways that private schools game the system. Look at the outcry when a draft report from the Productivity Commission suggested Albanese might consider scrapping tax deductions for donating to school building funds. Private school leaders slammed the proposal – which would bring independent schools in line with other charities – as a “direct attack on faith communities” and one that might force them to raise fees.

As Dr Emma Rowe of Deakin University wrote, while public school principals are “putting in lengthy applications for basics like heaters and air-conditioning, working toilets… you have one elite school importing special limestone to build a literal castle.”

Private schools are not shining beacons of the free market, but exclusive institutions heavily subsidised by the taxpayer.

The real twist of the knife is that this staggering inequality is the reason an increasing number of parents send their kids to private schools. If your local public school can’t afford air con or a guaranteed music program, the Catholic school down the road can look like the only decent choice. In other words, the growth of private schooling in this country is in large part due to government’s failure to adequately fund our public schools. It’s a hell of a feedback loop.

The big cheat in this model is that, really, there’s no such thing as an independent school. What we have instead are publicly funded private schools (through direct funds and/or tax benefits) that are inaccessible to most of the public. They are not shining beacons of the free market, but exclusive institutions heavily subsidised by the taxpayer – with few strings attached. Through our taxes, we are effectively contributing to the unfair advantage of the least needy children.

In her Saturday Paper article, Farrelly argued that our “winner-takes-all schools system” is proving toxic for Australia’s culture. When Finland banned private schools in the 1960s and invested all its funds in public schools and their teachers, they achieved not only equity but also excellence, with improved outcomes across the board. Even if banning private schools is not on the agenda in Australia, ceasing the overfunding and closing the tax loopholes should be. If private schools use this as an excuse to lift fees, so be it. By redirecting funding back to public schools, we’ll get far greater bang for our buck, with money once squandered on the few instead providing a world-class education for all Australians, ‘ordinary’ or otherwise.

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