Schools Make no mistake: school funding is biased against public schools

The latest Report on Government Services shows that 82% of low socio-economic status (SES) students and 83% of Indigenous students are enrolled in public schools. My School data shows that public schools enrol 79% of remote area students and 87% of students in very remote areas; and that public schools account for 91% of all disadvantaged schools.

And yet, since 2009, increases in state and federal funding have massively favoured Catholic and independent schools. Government funding, adjusted for inflation, increased by $2,697 per student in Catholic schools and by $2,310 in independent schools between 2009 and 2021, compared to $1,062 in public schools. And much of the small increase in public school funding went towards bureaucracy, not staffing.

As a result, income per student in Catholic schools increased by $2,958 and by $2,529 in independent schools compared with just $822 in public schools. That means private schools now have a big resource advantage over public. Income per student in independent schools is over 50% more than that of public schools and 12% higher for Catholic. As Archbishop Anthony Fisher has admitted, Catholic schools have “never had it so good”.

This income disparity translates into large differences in both human and material resources. Public schools face greater teacher shortages, more teachers teaching out of field, and more shortages of educational materials such as textbooks, laboratory equipment, instructional material, and computers. The shortages are particularly severe in disadvantaged schools. OECD data shows that about one-third of students in Australia’s low SES schools have had their learning hindered by teacher shortages.

It’s time for governments to stop providing a resource advantage to private schools.

Even official figures show that the Commonwealth government is over-funding private schools. On average, private schools are funded at 105.7% of their Schooling Resource Standard (SRS). However, the actual over-funding is much greater, because the funding model ignores other lucrative sources of income – for example, donations and investments – in assessing their financial need. Just 50 private schools alone raked in $611 million from these sources over five years between 2017 and 2021.

On the other hand, public schools are being systematically defrauded. On average, public schools are currently funded at only 87.3% of their SRS. This represents a funding shortfall of nearly $7 billion a year. Part of this shortfall is due to a special allowance for state governments to claim expenditures specifically excluded from the measure of the SRS as part of their share of funding public schools, a provision that does not apply for private school funding.

Public education is being progressively dismantled under the current funding arrangements while the privatisation of education increases. Inequality in school outcomes and social segregation between schools is deepening. Massive achievement gaps of four to six years of learning exist between rich and poor.

schools must be fully funded, and the disadvantage loadings increased. International studies show the current loadings are far too low to be effective. Taxpayer funding for private schools should only fill the gap between private income and the base SRS.

We are at a critical point in school funding. It’s time for governments to stop providing a resource advantage to private schools, and the defrauding of public schools must end. The challenge for the next National School Reform Agreement is to deliver a fairer funding system and greater equity in student outcomes.

Full funding of public schools is fundamental to achieving equity in educational opportunities for all students. Apart from addressing injustice within education, the achievement gap between rich and poor is also a measure of potential productivity improvement. Closing the gap would increase workforce skills and knowledge, promote wages growth, and increase Australia’s economic prosperity.

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