Diminishing school

Here is a radical view: governments should not fund private schools. They should not fund their orchestra pits or swimming pools or rowing sheds.

If parents want to develop or maintain an elite system outside of public education they are perfectly entitled to do so, but that system should not be subsidised.

It is a radical suggestion but it is necessary because the debate on school funding in this country is otherwise defined by cowardice and opportunism.

It was cowardice that saw the Gillard government pervert the Gonski model to guarantee funding levels to private schools, and it was opportunism that saw Labor characterise the education minister’s tentative discussion of fairness this week as the drafting of “a secret hit list” of schools.

It is a shameful opportunism that asks a question like this: “Which kids will be robbed by this minister who seems incapable of being upfront about his secret plans for school funding?”

The federal education minister, Simon Birmingham, is to be applauded for his honesty in confronting the issue of private schools funding. It is a mark of the toxicity of the debate when that honesty, and the outrage it provoked, was simply to confess that there are “some schools that are notionally overfunded”.

The fact is this: on the government’s own data, 150 private schools receive more funding than they are entitled to under the School Resourcing Standard, some at almost three times the correct level. By comparison, there is not a single public school in New South Wales funded at its recommended level.

That is a chilling reality. Not a single public school in NSW is funded at the level the government’s own standard says is appropriate.

But Loreto Kirribilli takes more than 2.8 times its funding entitlement. Monte Sant’ Angelo Mercy College takes 2.7 times its correct allotment. Saint Ignatius’ College, Riverview takes more than 2.6 times its assessed level.

Once again, the telltale number: not a single public school in NSW is funded at the government’s own standard.

These are terrible distortions in our system of education. The figures are monuments to avarice. But to say so is poison politically.

The shilling has begun. The private schools sector claims it is an “easy target” and that cuts provoke “anxiety and uncertainty”. The Catholic education commission says: “Springing funding cuts on schools or systems is far from fair and does nothing for funding certainty.”

The argument that says the parents of private school students pay tax and so should see that money invested into the private system is a bogus one. There is nothing to stop that parent sending their child to a public school where that tax is being spent. What that person is asking for is a subsidy for elitism.

The end to government funding of private education would have to be managed gradually. It would lead to an increase in private fees and see more students enter the public system. Some schools might fail. Others might reduce their infrastructure.

In the long term, it could likely cost the government more as the state system expanded to educate greater numbers of students. But this is in defence of a more worthwhile principle, a principle that says the bedrock of a person’s development, their education, should be equal. There should not be two Australias, propped up by government spending. Public money should not be used to make one group of people more elite than another. And it should not be dangerous to say so.

What a sorry debate this is, where it is radical to be fair.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 1, 2016 as "Diminishing school".

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