Opinion

Paddy Manning
The funding gap on education

If you’ve lost track of the frustrating schools funding debate lately, it’s time to start paying attention. The difference between the offerings of the two major political parties at the federal election is sharp and it boils down to one number – $14 billion – the amount Labor is proposing to invest in public schools over the next decade, over and above what the Coalition has on the table after last year’s Gonski 2.0 deals. Though not enough to bring public schools up to standard, it’s significant.

In the recent budget, the Morrison government did nothing to bridge that funding gap. It is not trying to match Labor’s commitment to restore the public school funding in the original Gonski package. The upshot is we are left with lopsided school funding arrangements. The National School Reform Agreement, signed by Education Minister Dan Tehan at the end of last year with each state and territory, restored $4.6 billion of funding for independent schools and the Catholic system – after a lot of arm-wrestling – but left public schools out in the cold. As the parent of public school kids, it made me angry, and I’m not alone.

The government argues it is providing record school funding, tallying $308 billion over the next decade, with each of the public, independent and Catholic sectors receiving more per annum. Record funding has not led to better learning outcomes, they say, and it is true that Australian students keep falling further behind their international counterparts, as the Public Education Foundation reported last year.

Paradoxically, however, back in 2013 the Coalition removed those parts of the school-funding agreements that gave the federal government power to do some quality control in exchange for higher schools funding, such as imposing school management plans and setting up Canberra-based data gathering and inspectors. Then education minister Christopher Pyne described it as “red tape”.

The Coalition has also long argued that Labor’s original Gonski package was unfunded and so it never made any “cuts” per se. That’s true – to be precise, the government lowered unfunded school funding growth forecasts. In a 2017 fact check, the ABC rated Labor’s claim the government’s Gonski 2.0 package cut $22 billion in schools funding as “misleading” but the opposition is unapologetic. And the essential point remains – at this election Labor is offering a lot more future funding for public schools than the Coalition, which is simply outgunned. Tehan’s office grumbles about “Mediscare” all over again but concedes: “We’re bringing facts to a money fight.”

That money is desperately needed. A data investigation by the ABC last year found the billions poured into Australian schools since the dawn of the “education revolution” under then minister Julia Gillard in 2008 – meant to establish sector-blind, needs-based funding – has left thousands of public schools with less public funding than similar private schools, because of the steep rise in government funding to private schools. Rather than closing the equity gap, the income divide was wider for many schools than at any point in the past decade. As the Grattan Institute’s school education program director Peter Goss notes: “A decade ago, one in 20 private schools” received “more public dollars per student than comparable government schools ... By 2016, it was more than one in three.”

That’s a legacy of the special deals that both Coalition and Labor governments have done with the independent and Catholic sectors, including Gillard’s promise that no school would ever lose a dollar. Labor was gun-shy after former leader Mark Latham was monstered in the media during the 2004 election campaign for having a “hit list” of overfunded private schools that should lose public funding.

Recently shadow education minister Tanya Plibersek conceded – finally – that Gillard’s commitment to maintain funding for those elite schools was a mistake: “I think at that time, if we had cut the couple of dozen, very over-funded schools, I think it would have been the better thing to do,” she admits. Plibersek says Labor will “bring overfunded schools down to their fair funding level over time”, which may or may not placate anyone enraged by the steady drip-feed of stories about the arms race between elite private schools with so much money they don’t know what to do with it. Melbourne’s Caulfield Grammar, for example, is building a pool with a moveable floor, while Presbyterian Ladies College will soon have an orchestra lift – which would all be fine, if it wasn’t part-funded by taxpayers. These schools don’t need or deserve another cent of public money.

As we head into this election, however, the main game for Labor is fixing the problem of underfunded public schools, not overfunded private schools. Labor has had a crack team reverse-engineering the formulas behind the government’s school resourcing standard, to work out how much extra money every public school will get from the $14 billion, searchable on its “Fair Go for Schools” website. It may not dominate the national media, but it’s a major campaign rolling out suburb by suburb, seat by seat. They are backed by the Australian Education Union, which planted protest signs for each of thousands of schools on the lawns outside Parliament House in Canberra last week.

Tehan argues there are diminishing returns from further funding and, in a recent speech, talked instead about enhancing the curriculum, establishing the “evidence institute” called for in last year’s second Gonski report on school quality, and updating the goals in the decade-old Melbourne Declaration on education. Victorian Education Minister James Merlino recently boycotted talks on the last of these, which he described as a “farce”. Victoria last year refused to sign up to any more than a six-month agreement, taking the state past the election, because it short-changed state schools. “I wasn’t prepared to sit and listen to the Morrison government grandstand about education,” Merlino said, “while they are proposing a funding model in which public school kids get less funding than private school kids.”

Tehan, who has described himself as “an imperfect Catholic”, went to Xavier College in Melbourne – the same school as Bill Shorten – and was dropped into the portfolio when Scott Morrison took over as prime minister. He sounds like a country yokel but Tehan did fix a standoff with the Catholics that claimed his predecessor Simon Birmingham. From one fix to another, however, the story of schools funding since the original Gonski report in 2011 has been two steps forward, one step back, and plenty in circles – all while fighting stupid culture wars about Safe Schools, teaching “Aussie Values” or negotiating the Strike 4 Climate protests. Meanwhile, NAPLAN is flagging, entry standards for teaching qualifications are through the floor and outcomes continue to deteriorate.

At least both parties are agreed on the method behind the sector-blind school resource standard (SRS) itself, even if they are at odds about if, when or how schools in each sector might achieve it. The only party with a policy to fund public schools to 100 per cent of the SRS are the Greens, although they can’t deliver on it, of course. Plibersek says the Greens “cannot be trusted on school funding – in 2017 they tried to team up with the Liberals to cut billions from public schools”.

A privilege of being deputy leader is that Plibersek gets to pick her portfolio. The opposition is making a virtue of stability and continuity on its frontbench, and Plibersek intends to keep her current portfolios of education and women. So, if Labor wins next month, she will become education minister and see the reform process through. Plibersek is a product of the public system – her favourite teachers from Sydney’s Oyster Bay Public School and Jannali Girls’ High School were at her recent press club speech – and her kids have all gone to public schools as well. “It’s my ambition to get public schools to 100 per cent of the SRS over time,” says Plibersek, “working with the states and territories, I believe we can get there.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 13, 2019 as "The private school funding trap". Subscribe here.

Paddy Manning
is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly.