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New analysis shows funding for Catholic and independent schools grew more than five times that of public schools in the past decade. By Royce Kurmelovs.

Public schools still missing out on funding

When Daniel Hogan first returned to the classroom eight years ago, not as a student but as a working teacher, the first lesson was how little in schools had changed.

“It was almost nostalgic,” Hogan says. “The carpet was the same. Same paint on the walls. Same furniture. They hadn’t updated those things in 30 years. There were even old computers sitting in the corner.”

The textbooks were the same, too.

It would be the same story in every public school Hogan worked, whether in Melbourne, London or Western Sydney. Everywhere they went, class time was chewed up fixing tech issues on shared laptops or being audited for performance instead of actually teaching.

During their early morning commute in Sydney, Hogan would pass an independent grammar school with a sprawling campus complex.

“It looked like a gated community,” they say. “As [public school] teachers, we’re left to create everything from scratch ... Where it clicked with me was reading about funding. I got on Google as an extension of my frustration, I wanted to know: why is every school I work in in this situation?”

Some answers may be found in a new analysis of Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority numbers conducted by Trevor Cobbold, a former Productivity Commission economist from advocacy group Save Our Schools.

When Cobbold looked at rates of combined state and federal funding for the decade between 2009 and 2018 – and adjusted for inflation – he found total funding for Catholic and independent schools, in real terms, grew more than five times that of public schools.

If government funding for public schools had increased by a meagre $306 for each student, Catholic schools had seen their funding grow by $1620, while independent schools recorded an average increase of $1603.

Breaking down these figures, state to state, paints a bleak picture. Funding levels in Queensland and New South Wales have remained stable, but non-government schools in those states have still had a funding increase that is double the funding of state schools.

Further south, in Victoria, Cobbold says funding for non-government schools has increased at a rate eight times what it is for public schools. Across the border in South Australia, non-government schools collect five times the support of their public counterparts.

Of all the states and territories, Western Australia has the largest gap. Thanks to the complicated web of funding agreements between state and federal governments, public schools in the state have seen their funding drastically cut.

“In nine years, there’s been a cut – a huge cut in funding for public schools in WA – at $1417 per kid,” says Cobbold. “Meanwhile, government funding for Catholic schools has increased by nearly $1170 per kid and the increase for independent schools is $1749.”

With public schools enrolling two-thirds of all students in the country, and accounting for four in every five disadvantaged students, Cobbold says seeing the funding gap open up between public and non-government schools over the past 15 years has been like watching the class divide grow in real time.

“It’s so stark,” he says. “To be honest, it’s got to the stage I find it hard to come up with words to describe how stark this is. It’s just incredible that we can persist with these funding arrangements that so favour privilege over disadvantage.”

Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan said in a statement to The Saturday Paper that the federal government was tipping more money into schools and was “asking” for the states and territories to meet them in the middle.

“Federal government school funding on a calendar year basis from 2018 to 2029 is $314.2 billion,” he said. “The per-student funding growth over the same period (from a 2017 base) is now 63.2 per cent.

“Our government is providing a record $21.8 billion in 2020 for schools, which is an extra 68 per cent since we came to government. For the first time, real needs-based funding will be provided and will grow from $17.5 billion in 2017 to $32.5 billion in 2029.”

Cobbold, however, says this response misses the point.

“It is easy for ministers for Education – state or Commonwealth – to say we’re increasing funding,” he says. “What they fail to say is they have not increased funding in terms of resources in schools. You have to adjust for price and wage increases to measure whether there is a real increase in school funding.

“If you increase salaries for teaching, the funding goes up – but there’s no extra teachers and there have not been any extra material resources in schools.”

Independent Schools Australia, the national body representing the interests of the independent school sector, declined to comment and directed further inquiries to research published on its website.

Associate Professor Helen Proctor, of the University of Sydney, says Terry Cobbold’s “numbers are absolutely rock solid”. “These funding wars have, unfortunately, been going on for some time,” she says.

How Australia ended up here is the result of a tangled history that stretches back to 1964, when conservative prime minister Robert Menzies began to give public money to private schools. Two years later, the precedent would gain bipartisan support when Labor, while in opposition with Gough Whitlam as deputy leader, began to favour public support for Catholic schools as a way to calm internal divisions.

With that, the federal government began to insert itself in conversations about school funding, once the sole domain of the states. And the more the federal government became involved, the more the states retreated.

Over time, this has led the level of government support to slowly shift in favour of non-government schools. This transition hit its peak under the Liberal government of John Howard, with a massive growth in religious schools of all denominations leaving Australia with one of the highest concentrations of religious schools in the OECD.

While the Gonski reforms of last decade were meant to depoliticise the issue of school funding, they were either watered down, applied selectively or fell apart under the weight of compromise.

Today, says Proctor, the enduring lopsided funding distribution has worked to actively reforge the education system to more closely resemble what exists in Britain or the United States, with middle-class families feeling increasingly compelled to send their children to non-government schools.

At the level of politics, this has caused parental anxiety to be weaponised to achieve certain goals.

“Parents’ default emotion is anxiety,” says Proctor. “Emotion tangles everything up, so where you send children to school can never be a neutral issue. People get emotional about questions of school choice. People have fallings out over public or private. Catholic or secular.

“What people hope they’re paying for is the peer group. What they’re worried about is partly the aspirational sense your child might be in these classes with people who are going to be ruling the country or heading for university one day. But you’re also absolutely terrified that your kid will fall in with ‘the wrong sort of people’.

“There’s a lot of conversations [about school funding] that are very coded, in which values or good discipline in the school – or anything like that – is a way of saying parents may not be wanting the kids to mix with ‘the wrong sort of people’ or they ‘want them to mix with people like us’.

“Often that is classed, and it is raced.”

Professor Susan Goodwin, of the University of Sydney, says what has happened to primary and secondary schooling is now happening to the university sector, too, as the government seeks to introduce the higher education reform bill. She says that bill and other recent changes to funding arrangements will further open up the university sector to private and for-profit educational institutions.

“The whole new funding model for the higher education system is directed at funding for teaching, not research funding,” she says. “It’s expected funding will flow to teaching-only private education providers, while public institutions will have to seek funding for research elsewhere.

“The idea of creating this ‘level playing field’ so private providers can make profit from the market in higher education really threatens the public role of universities … We can see elsewhere that doing this has completely failed. It’s opened up other sectors to cowboys who are just in it for the money, basically.”

Whatever happens, Daniel Hogan says that if the issue of funding for public schools isn’t addressed, the situation will devolve into a self-fulfilling cycle, where struggling public institutions serve to accelerate calls for the education system to be further privatised.

“And that’s nonsense because public schools undoubtedly cater for the highest level of disadvantage,” says Hogan. “To accommodate that, they need funding. The classroom has to be dynamic to cater to their needs. We can’t do more with less.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 11, 2020 as "The great divide".

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Royce Kurmelovs is an Adelaide-based freelance journalist and author.