Schools The funding wars

  • By Ben Eltham
  • This article was published more than 5 years ago.
  • 16 Jan 2019

Nothing shows Australia’s ongoing obsession with class privilege like schools policy. While many disadvantaged schools get by on the smell of an oily rag, wealthy private schools are building rifle ranges and Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Under successive Coalition governments, independent and religious schools have been winning, while the bulk of Australian students educated in government schools have been missing out. Australia has slowly slid down the international rankings, as the gap between our most advantaged and disadvantaged schools widen, mirroring the growing inequality in Australian society.

Underlying this inequality is a perverted funding system that sees far greater federal funding flow to private and religious schools than to public schools, even though the majority of students are educated in the government system. Reforming this bizarre largesse has been one of the longest and most bitter struggles in Australian public policy.

A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to see my mum’s retirement speech.

After 51 years in education, at the age of nearly 70, she was finally handing in her teacher’s registration. Starting out as a student teacher in a one-classroom school in Colac, she taught in Victoria, London and rural Queensland before finishing as a principal of a primary school in Ipswich.

For someone about to begin teaching tertiary students myself, it was a special moment. My mum had never really talked to me about her views on pedagogy or her philosophy of schooling – but, from her, I had managed to absorb something pretty special: a passion for teaching.

I learned another lesson from my mum in her final years as a primary school principal: the importance of funding. As Labor’s Gonski reforms started to roll out at the end of the Rudd-Gillard years, I once asked her whether she had noticed a difference.

Yes. The Gonski money really did make a difference. For her school, in one of the most disadvantaged districts in Queensland, the extra needs-based funding was worth more than a million dollars extra annually. She was able to hire more special needs teachers and use the additional resources to address stubborn problems.

In 2018, Malcolm Turnbull’s education minister Simon Birmingham attempted to defuse Labor attacks on his party’s private school bias by announcing his “Gonski 2.0” deal, which ostensibly promised a form of needs-based funding in line with Julia Gillard’s intentions for the original Gonski deal. Approximately $18 billion was promised over a decade, but most of that money was back-loaded in the years well beyond the life of the current government.

The AEU – among others – was quick to criticise the deal as disingenuous. While it claimed to address the underfunding of public schools, Birmingham was actually subtracting billions from the level of funding that Labor had pledged back in 2011. Under the new plan, $1.9 billion would be cut from public school funding in 2018 and 2019. By 2023, only 13% of public schools will receive enough funding to reach the minimum Schooling Resource Standard (SRS). Turnbull subsequently struck a deal with private schools that delivered them an extra $1.7 billion in funding. Other backroom deals followed, undermining any claims Birmingham made to adopting a needs-based model.

Even if the formula claimed to be needs-based, the quantum certainly was not. As it stands, many state schools around the country aren’t getting their full allocation of the supposedly needs-based SRS – and they still won’t, well into the next decade.

It wasn’t just public schools who were unhappy with the new deal, however. The Catholic sector protested as it was no longer allowed to use one of its favourite accounting tricks – the so-called “system weighted average”. The details are arcane, but they boil down to allowing the Catholic system to cross-subsidise in order to keep primary school fees low across the board, even in wealthy areas.

What happened next perfectly encapsulates the persistence of the school funding wars. Faced with the possibility that some parents might have to pay higher fees, the Catholics launched a massive offensive.

In Victoria, the Catholic sector funded a strident campaign against Birmingham, the Liberal government, and the Greens (who they blamed for voting for the deal in the Senate). Tens of thousands of anti-Greens phone calls were made in the Batman by-election in early 2018, and the Catholics signalled they were prepared to do the same against the Coalition in the upcoming federal election.

It may be no coincidence that, by September 2018, Australia had a new prime minister and a new education minister, both with strong religious backgrounds. Birmingham was out. Dan Tehan was in. Terrified at the prospect of a grassroots campaign against the Liberal base, Scott Morrison allegedly told Tehan to make the Catholic campaign go away.

Tehan solved the problem with a tried and tested tactic: he threw money at it. In an extraordinary move that junked the principle of needs-based funding altogether, Tehan announced an extra $4.6 billion in funding, most of which will go to the Catholic system. Schools that are overfunded according to the Gonski 2.0 model will have extra time and extra money. The package contains a direct payment of at least $718 million for the Catholic sector.

Dan Tehan’s $4.6 billion handout shows why the school funding wars keep being waged with such intensity. Public schools educate the bulk of Australian students overall, including the vast majority of students with the highest needs. By the end of the decade, they are forecast to educate 23 times as many students as the Catholic sector. The case for increasing public funding to public schools is clear. But, with a Coalition government in power, Catholic and the independent schools can count on having friends in high places. Why would they stop fighting for more when the odds are stacked in their favour?

For schools like my mum’s old primary school in Ipswich, no such largesse is forthcoming. There is no extra money for the public system from Dan Tehan. Public schools remain substantially worse off than they would have been if Julia Gillard’s original Gonski arrangements were still in place. The stark reality – as government data obtained under freedom of information legislation demonstrated in September – is that government schools are still getting much less funding per student than Catholic or independent schools. With Labor promising an extra $14 billion for public schools if it wins the 2019 election, the battle lines are drawn.

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