Abbott backflip to match Labor on schools funding

Christopher Pyne has announced that schools will receive the same funding under either a Labor or Liberal government. AAP/Dave Hunt

Tony Abbott has moved to neutralise school funding as an election issue by promising to match “dollar for dollar” the money that Labor has promised over the next four years.

Making his dramatic announcement to a news conference hours before Labor’s economic statement, Abbott said: “As far as school funding is concerned, Kevin Rudd and I are on a unity ticket. There is no difference between Kevin Rudd and myself when it comes to school funding.”

Abbott and education spokesman Christopher Pyne said that if elected the Coalition would ensure Commonwealth schools funding committed by Labor for school year 2014 would flow in all states and territories irrespective of whether they had signed a deal with the federal government.

The Coalition would “match the Commonwealth funding for schools committed by Labor over the forward estimates”.

There is $2.9 billion for the plan in the forward estimates and opposition sources estimate that at least hundreds of millions have also been promised in side deals.

The decision reflects concern that school funding could be a damaging issue for the Coalition in an election that is seen to be close on current polls. The Catholic and independent systems have embraced the Better Schools Plan.

Pyne said: “You can vote Liberal or you can Labor and you’ll get precisely the same funding envelope regardless.”

The Coalition promise to honour Labor’s offers of extra money, made to conclude deals means even Western Australia, which always said it would not sign, will get the several hundred million extra Labor offered to try to entice it into a deal.

But the Coalition has not committed itself on the final two years of the six year Gonski plan. It says it will work with the states next year towards a national model and will look at a fair and sustainable approach to school funding.

The turnaround is the second position the opposition had had in a week and a complete reversal of its initial stand.

Only NSW, South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT have signed up to the Better Schools program. Despite a big effort from the government, Victoria has not struck a deal.

Pyne said the Coalition decision “will provide schools and parents with the funding certainty they deserve”.

The Coalition had earlier said it would not accept the Better School plan, based on the Gonski report, unless there was an “overwhelming” agreement from states and territories. A week ago it said it would next year meet deals done, but seek to renegotiate a new system for beyond that.

The Coalition would also amend the Australian Education Act, just passed by the government, to ensure states, territories and non government sectors “keep authority for their schools”.