Jane Caro and
Lyndsay Connors

Ruining Gonski’s school funding plan

Those of us who believe in the primacy of the only education system open to all – namely public education – got our hopes up a few years ago. We allowed ourselves to believe that the recommendations of the 2010 Gonski review panel might mean good sense would prevail over political expediency, partisanship, ideology, tribalism and just plain snobbery when it came to the equitable funding of education for our children. Thanks to the Turnbull version of Gonski, those hopes have now been well and truly dashed.

We didn’t fall into the same trap before this week’s budget, of course. Public education advocates have learnt their lesson. And our lack of expectations was vindicated. Once again public schools were used for purely political purposes via a sop to the troublesome religious right who so bedevil our current PM. The religious chaplaincy program got any available extra funding and was made permanent in a move that underlines how little the LNP understand of the basic principles of secular universal public education open to children from families of all faiths and none.

The Turnbull version of Gonski borrowed the brand and the packaging but ripped the guts out of the product. The public school system and the student majority that it serves were pushed into the background while both major parties tripped over themselves to satisfy the demands of their own favourite segments of the private-school sector – a sector that, as a whole, serves about one third of the school population, disproportionately drawn from better-off families.

The LNP have been brazen about their commitment to what they call “independent” schools, including those that charge high and ever-mounting fees.

They have claimed their partiality towards these palaces of privilege is “part of their DNA”. Under Turnbull’s mutated (and mutilated) Gonski, 87 per cent of public schools will still not be funded to the agreed minimum school resource standard by 2023. Sixty-five per cent of fee-charging schools, however, will be funded above it.

In the run-up to the Batman byelection, the ALP stepped forward as the patron saint of Catholic schools, pledging to reinstate their former “no losers” deal so that the proceeds of the past “special deals” for these schools by both major parties will be enshrined in their future funding.

At the same time, simmering hostilities have broken into open warfare between sections of the Catholic and the independent schools, and even within the former. The fight is over how best to assess parents’ capacity to pay towards their children’s private schooling. The Turnbull government is awaiting the advice of the National School Resourcing Board. They must decide how to assess how much parents can pay towards achieving their school’s agreed Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) as a basis for determining the school’s need for public funding.

But surely what makes a mockery of this exercise to achieve “needs-based” and “sector-blind” funding is that our governments will continue, regardless, to fund even those private schools whose fees alone are more than double this standard.

The underlying reasons for the current melee lie in the history of schools funding. It was the then Country Party that forced the Whitlam government to extend public funding to private schools operating well above the Karmel target standards in order to get its Schools Commission established in 1973. This contaminated what was conceived as a needs-based scheme by building in a tension between needs and entitlement as a rationale for public funding.

In its drive to use public funding to fuel parental choice and competition among schools and parents, the Howard government forced on to the majority of schools a funding model more suited to the minority – the independent private school. School systems, with their capacity to achieve internal reciprocities and economies of scale in the interest of efficiency and fairness, didn’t quite fit.

All of which begs the question – what kind of democracy have we become? One where governments send the equivalent of a thousand or more teacher salaries to schools whose private fees alone bring in twice the level of the Commonwealth’s own resource standard instead of to those schools that really need these teachers.

This is a policy for which no educational justification has ever been mounted by either the donors of this public largesse or the recipients. And it is difficult to find any other form of justification for this farcical practice, unique to this country.

If these high-fee schools took on the most challenging and costly kids to teach, perhaps then there might be some justification for their public subsidy. But they have long given preference to lavish facilities over providing for students with high support needs.

Nor are these high-fee schools role models or “lighthouse” schools for those less well endowed. High-fee schools compete on the basis of their superior, and publicly inflated, resources, not their educational excellence. If we looked at simple return on investment, they’d be left choking in the dust by their much cheaper and more efficiently run government selective schools.

Neither is there any economic justification for adding public dollars to the high fees. If they can’t provide a decent education with the huge fees they already charge, then giving them more from the public purse won’t help. All that money does is further fund the resources arms race these schools have locked themselves into to attract well-heeled parents. Wellness centres, onsite baristas, Scottish castles in the air, anyone?

What about the arguments commonly put by private school advocates? How do they stack up?

They use the argument that parents pay taxes. But every working adult pays taxes, including those with no children. Taxes are not a down payment on the services you personally use. You pay taxes to meet your tax obligations, not to gain personal privileges over other taxpayers (or their kids).

Without public funding, fees would go up, they say, and parents would move their kids into the public system that then couldn’t cope. There is no evidence public subsidies have had any effect on fees in these high-fee schools. Indeed, these schools provide a prime example of what economists call inelastic demand.

Private school parents make sacrifices, they lament. Buying something for your own child is not a sacrifice, it’s a decision, and like all such decisions has opportunity costs. After all, you have to have the $35,000 before you can “sacrifice” it. Moreover the quality of a child’s education should not be dependent on whether they have parents who are either willing or able to make “sacrifices”.

They go on to claim that removing funding from high-fee schools is the politics of envy. What about the politics of avarice and greed? And let’s not go into the kind of hubris and unconscious privilege that sees itself – self-pityingly – as the focus of others’ envy.

But there are even more fundamental reasons why our unique system of funding schools is so irrational and destructive. Indeed, it sometimes feels as if Australia is as blind to the lack of logic behind, and damage caused by, our funding of schools as many Americans are to their country’s lack of sensible gun control.

When governments provide public funding for high-fee schools they are not only endorsing the level of fees these schools charge as being educationally justifiable but are actually saying they are not adequate and that further funding is necessary from government. If governments want to argue that the likes of Riverview and The King’s School have a level of resources barely adequate for the highly selected group of students they serve, then they are guilty of grossly underfunding all other Australian schools. The only way in which governments could morally justify the public funding of these schools is by adopting their resource levels as the basic minimum standard for all; and by providing the public funding needed to raise all schools to at least that level (with significantly more funding for schools serving students from the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum).

Why won’t they do that? Because it would be both a gross waste of money and completely unaffordable. As a result, the message being sent to our children is chillingly Orwellian. Namely that some kids are more important and worthwhile than others. No wonder kids in some of our public schools commonly refer to themselves as attending the “povo” schools. It’s short for poverty and devastatingly accurate.

Australia needs political leaders who will drive progress towards what this country needs: schools funding arrangements that are transparent, efficient and effective and fair to all. Schools funding that has the integrity to inspire public confidence and give us a better return on our considerable investment.

It is hard to maintain hope when we have political parties that are unwilling to peel away even this fine layer of absurdity from our schools funding arrangements, or to end the hypocrisy of including these monuments to private privilege in their so-called “needs-based” funding schemes.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 12, 2018 as "Fairness now Gonski".

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