For everyone The real cost of reopening schools

Universal, compulsory, secular education available to every child, regardless of their background, paid for by everyone because everyone benefits from living in an educated community. It’s one of the greatest ideas human beings have ever had. It’s such a great idea we have come to take it for granted, especially in Australia.

As I am sure most readers of this publication already know, Australia – to its shame – is the most generous public funder of private schools in the OECD. There is literally daylight between us and any other country. Conversely, we languish near the bottom when it comes to the percentage of public funding we give to public schools – something we should be even more ashamed about.

I am not going to repeat the facts about how differently Australians regard public education than most other democracies, suffice to say I think we are as blind to the effect it has on our country as America seems to be about the price they pay for the spurious ‘right to bear arms’.

The response of our conservative federal government to COVID-19 has only thrown the inequities baked into our education system into even starker relief. Having already given an outrageous $5 billion extra to fee-charging schools in the scant 11 months since the May election, the Morrison government has offered these schools a fast-tracked $3.3 billion to be fully open by June.

As per usual, the government has given nothing more to public schools, instead trying to guilt them into re-opening by showing confected concern for disadvantaged students who they claim are being ‘left behind’. Morrison has ramped up the pressure on state governments to force their schools to open more fully by 11 May and most states have complied.

Australia’s tragedy is that our public education system is having precisely the opposite effect than originally intended.

Victoria’s premier Dan Andrews, however, is standing by the current advice of his Chief Medical Officer that schools should not open for normal classes until Term 3 at the earliest. His leadership has inspired some Victorian Catholic schools to do the same – despite the Morrison government’s… what’s the polite word for it… incentive.

It is surprising to see any schools in the private sector standing shoulder to shoulder with their public counterparts, but it is even more unusual to see them turn their backs on some easy money. Mind you, the federal government has only really offered ‘advance’ – 25% of next year’s funding paid in June if a school is fully operational. So, perhaps that’s easier to refuse than the usual money for jam. Pardon my scepticism, but I suspect they’ll get their full allocation in 2021 come what may.

Australia’s tragedy is that our public education system is having precisely the opposite effect than originally intended. Free, secular, compulsory, universal education for all was an attempt by 19th century reformers to break down the rigid class system. They hoped to create a merit-based society where people of talent and application could rise above any inequality of birth. Public education isn’t perfect – nothing created by flawed human beings ever is – but it’s the best lever we’ve ever come up with to create a path out of poverty.

Our current education system is being used to build a class system, not break it down.

Not in so-called egalitarian Australia. Our current education system is being used to build a class system, not break it down.

In part, the government is getting away with its inequitable treatment of school sectors because of biased expectations. Given their high status, elite private schools are extravagantly congratulated for having a handful of carefully selected Indigenous students or offering bursaries to the disadvantaged.

Meanwhile, the public school down the road, which takes all-comers without picking and choosing, and caters for the vast majority of disadvantaged and high-needs students, is sneered at when anything goes wrong. To make a domestic analogy, private schools are like fathers – praised for merely changing a nappy or attending a school event during working hours; while public schools are like mothers, doing the bulk of the heavy-lifting and yet still criticised for never doing enough.

That’s why Morrison can blame and shame public schools over ‘leaving disadvantaged kids behind’ while throwing huge amounts of cash at private schools to get both systems to save his economic and political bacon. It’s about class, status and hierarchy – not education, needy kids or keeping everyone safe in a pandemic.

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