Facing funding shortfalls, public schools have turned to fundraising and parental contributions, prompting debate about whether our education system remains free. By Vivienne Pearson and Margaret Paton.

The reality of Australia’s free public education

A note in his son’s schoolbag about a “lap-a-thon” fundraiser confused Pasi Sahlberg.

“I come from an education culture where everything we ask our children to do is for a purpose, like ‘I run these laps because it’s good for my health’,” says the father of two, who moved from Finland to Sydney a year ago. “We would never do these things to collect money.”

In Finland, the lap-a-thon would be against the rules. “Schools are forbidden to ask parents to pay,” says Sahlberg, who has worked on the education systems of more than 60 countries and is now a professor at the University of New South Wales’s Gonski Institute for Education.

“In most other countries,” he says, “public education means a free education for all children.”

Even before he moved, Sahlberg knew how far Australia was down the track of normalising subject levies and voluntary contributions in public education. As a parent here now, he sees how reliant schools are on other hidden parental contributions – fundraising and donations of school supplies ranging from iPads to tissues. Payments for co-curricular activities, including excursions, are also accepted without question.

States vary in how the ideals of Australian public education – that it be free, compulsory and secular – are enshrined in law. In the early 20th century, fees were largely abolished across the country, but most states now allow public schools to charge fees. In South Australia at least, this includes the option for legal recovery of unpaid subject-specific charges for materials and services.

In practice, public education is not free. Parental and other private contributions have become the norm as public schools attempt to fill government funding gaps.

“Australia has one of the most inequitable, opaque and dysfunctional education funding regimes in the world,” says Alan Reid, emeritus professor at the University of South Australia and author of Changing Australian Education.

“In the past 20 to 30 years, the dominant purpose of education has been the economic purpose … We should include democratic, social and cultural purposes to develop young people to have a valid role in our democracy.”

In 2014, the government introduced the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS), an algorithm that attempts to create funding equity.

“The national aspiration is for public schools to be funded at – or higher to – their full Schooling Resource Standard,” says Dr Peter Goss, head of the school education program at the Grattan Institute.

Instead of setting a fixed amount per student, the SRS acknowledges that some kids – including those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background, those with disabilities, those who speak English as a second or other language and those without economic and academic advantages that boost a child’s learning – cost more, on average, to educate.

“The idea of needs-based funding goes back quite a long way,” says Goss. “It was given strong voice in the 2011 Gonski report and we now have multi-party consensus that needs-based funding is a good idea.”

However, from 2017, the Australian Education Amendment Act stated the Commonwealth would move to funding just 20 per cent of a public school’s SRS target, implicitly leaving state governments to make up the remaining 80 per cent. The arrangement for Catholic and independent schools is the exact opposite.

Most states were – and still are – a long way from 80 per cent. Victoria is the lowest, at 66 per cent. A new “practical target” of 75 per cent has been agreed to for all states but time lines have stretched out to 2029 – and beyond that for Queensland.

The 2019 negotiations also allowed costs, including those associated with the depreciation of newly built school buildings and the transporting of kids to and from school, to count towards the SRS – reducing the actual dollar figure principals are given to spend.

“These are things that never contributed towards the calculation of the original targets and, for large states, this can be potentially to the tune of $4 billion to $5 billion over the medium term,” says Goss. “In my view, it is using accounting tricks to reach a target.”

Goss is unsure whether the push for parental contributions would stop if public schools were fully funded. The culture of contribution is strong. “School systems may continue to expect parents to contribute,” he says, “and parents may accept that.”

Dr Anna Hogan, a researcher at the University of Queensland, says her findings would suggest as much. “Our research into the commercialisation of education found that parents don’t mind paying $1000 or $2000 a year,” she says, with the caveat she is referring only to middle-class parents. “It is problematic that the costs associated with public schooling disadvantage families who are not in a position to contribute.”

Pasi Sahlberg says: “In Australia, parents’ perceptions of their children’s education are more individualistic, focusing mostly on their own children. It’s about finding a good education for my child, rather than being concerned that their tax money will benefit everyone.”

Or, as Alan Reid says, “Entitlement has trumped equity.”

Clea-Rose Cellie’s son Josh is in year 8 at a public high school in Melbourne’s south-east. A single mother, she has to budget her carer support payments and casual work income carefully; she’s already started paying instalments on her son’s fees for next year.

“On top of fees of $210 and subject levies of $175, he’ll need books costing about $360,” Cellie says. “The stress is huge; it affects my sleep and wellbeing.”

Although some support is available, it often falls short. Josh’s camp this year cost twice the state-based funding available, so he wasn’t able to go.

Cellie says that school-based help – such as a textbook rental scheme – was offered, but only after multiple requests for assistance. She has been left feeling concerned about children of less proactive parents.

Cellie also worries about the cumulative impact of school costs for families less able to argue against options such as paying voluntary contributions on credit. Research led by University of New South Wales researcher Dr Jennifer Skattebol suggests that students from low-income families are choosing subjects based on cost, while a Brotherhood of St Laurence survey shows that students sometimes miss school if they can’t afford excursions or sporting activities.

Hogan says that schools in lower socioeconomic areas are fundamentally disadvantaged when education funding is reliant on payments from parents, businesses and other non-government entities.

“If you are an advantaged school community, you will generate more private funds, particularly through parental fees and contributions,” she says. “You have these almost elite public schools generating a huge amount of private income that props up their ability to create exceptional experiences for their students.

“It’s really clear that the ability to generate private funding is essentially tied to your school ICSEA,” she says, referring to the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage, which measures students’ socio-educational backgrounds.

Hogan, Reid and Goss agree that marginalising, excluding, shaming and “residualising” – which refers to the process of concentrating lower-performing students in particular schools – those who can’t afford to financially contribute to education will ultimately serve none of us. In a 2015 Australian Council for Educational Research report, “Imperatives in School Funding”, authors Lyndsay Connors and Jim McMorrow wrote: “The evolution of schools funding in Australia over the past four decades has had more to do with political than with educational values, objectives and priorities.”

The burden falls on teachers as well as parents. The Australian Education Union’s last “State of Our Schools” survey found more than 90 per cent of teachers spend their own money on school supplies or for direct student costs. “One in five spends more than $1000 each year,” says AEU president Correna Haythorpe.

With news this week that Australia’s rankings in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) have dropped to their lowest levels, it’s clear something needs to change.

Looking overseas for inspiration brings some hope for change. “The common initial response is our governments already spend too much in education,” says Sahlberg about the typical view of parents and teachers he meets around Australia. But once he has presented how other countries fund education, showing that the Australian government spends less than those of comparable countries, the response shifts to “Why haven’t we been told?”

“Parents seem to have an incorrect understanding of how education is funded,” Sahlberg says. “If you knew what was happening here, many parents would think differently. When they’re asked to contribute to their school, they would say, this is something to be paid by others, not us.”

New Zealand took a step just last month towards free public education, with a carrot approach that increases funding to schools in middle and lower socioeconomic areas if they agree to drop voluntary contributions.

Australia’s Education minister, Dan Tehan, told The Saturday Paper: “Our government believes that access to a free education is a basic human right. We believe that every Australian, no matter where they live, should have access to a world-class education.”

The Morrison government recently announced $4.6 billion of additional funding for independent and Catholic schools. It includes a $1.2 billion Choice and Affordability Fund, which is described by the government as “sector blind” yet is available to non-government schools only. Adrian Piccoli, a former NSW minister for Education and now director of the Gonski Institute for Education, labelled it a “slush fund”.

For his part, Sahlberg is still coming to grips with the idea of a “lap-a-thon” and considering why Australia doesn’t offer free public education. “We live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world with money to fully fund great public school education for all,” he says. “So why do we have to turn to parents’ pockets?”

Vivienne Pearson and Margaret Paton wrote this story with support from the Walkley Public Fund.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 7, 2019 as "Education’s fee for all".

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