For everyone School funding wars: when the rich win, the country loses

  • By Maeve McGregor
  • This article was published more than 6 months ago.
  • 3 Oct 2023

Writer and lawyer MAEVE McGREGOR argues that the shameful inequity in Australia’s school funding amounts to state-sanctioned discrimination.

For at least 20 years, the bonds of citizenship and basic fairness written into our social contract have cracked under the weight of a series of attacks disguised as benign policy changes. Though rarely cited, chief among these is the way in which successive governments have allowed the civic mission of public education to be debased, not only by the onward march of neoliberalism but also by the wealthy’s almost preternatural sense of entitlement.

Unspooled from notions of the public good, the common thread which runs through the arid funding landscape for public schools is these days anchored to ideas of competition and unfettered parental ‘choice’. Underpinning this shift in approach lies a logic which holds out the promise, or illusion, that the more the education sector can be refashioned in the mould of a marketplace, the greater the chances that excellence will triumph.

Yet, as any objective autopsy of the nation’s schools shows, what’s instead manifested is one of the most segregated education systems in the western world, and one mired in inequality and beset by impenetrable barriers of class, privilege, and wealth.

It’s in such ways we’ve invited the unedifying spectacle of a bifurcated nation: where there’s ample opportunity for some but not for all, where high-quality education is defined not as a birthright but a privilege, where full public funding unconditionally flows not to public schools but to private schools, and where the sum value of a child’s life is weighted almost from its inception according to their parents’ wealth and postcode.

What lies in wait, however, is entrenched educational and democratic malaise. Contrary to the seductively intuitive idea that competition among schools will bend outcomes towards excellence, the country has witnessed two decades of grim declines across reading, maths and science in the benchmark assessments administered by the OECD.

By design, this rhetoric writes out the realities of disadvantage, staff shortages and gross funding inequities.

Today, the average 15-year-old is a full year of learning behind a typical Australian 15-year-old in 2000, and two-thirds of a year behind in learning of their Canadian counterparts. Ordinarily, such realities would give government pause, particularly given well over 90% of students in Canada attend a public school, but so much presupposes a government motivated by evidence-based policy as opposed to ideology.

And so, rather than take responsibility for the forces that have combined to produce such miserable social failures, the usual response of government and much of the media is to sheet-home blame to ‘dud teachers’ in public schools.

No teacher in this connection is likely to have forgotten or forgiven the choice words of Stuart Robert early last year, who, as acting federal education minister, claimed many public school teachers were not only unequal to the task of educating but “can’t read or write”. Nor are they likely to have forgotten or forgiven his predecessor, Alan Tudge, for his cavalier suggestion that the solution for parents lies in shopping around for a better school.

Normally, rhetoric this unmoored from reality would sound alarm, but instead it’s seized upon and reiterated as veritable truth, along with the lie that never has so much relative funding been “thrown” at public schools. In trading denial for dissonance, what’s followed are demands for yet more teacher accountability, yet more curriculum changes, and the imposition of yet more managerialism.

Such fact-free pabulum, of course, is nothing less than obfuscation. By design, it conveniently writes out the realities of disadvantage, staff shortages and gross funding inequities. It also reduces millions of children to mere abstractions, glossing over the material unfairness of their inequitable learning conditions.

In this way, it cynically distracts from the very real civil rights storm that’s brewing before our eyes: after all, what else can we call legislated discrimination against public schools and the children who attend them.

Every attack on public education is more than a national disgrace. It’s an attack on our democracy and it’s an attack on our country.

This is an edited extract of an article first published in Crikey on 13 June 2023.

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