Change the name but ‘Gonski’ has a future under Rudd

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has announced changes to the ALP’s education reforms.

Newly reinstated prime minister Kevin Rudd has publicly committed to Labor’s school reform agenda and extended the deadline for states and territories to sign up to the National Plan for School Improvement.

In a press conference, he has emphasised the plan goes far beyond school funding, to enhanced school autonomy, revised curriculum, greater performance testing and more. He also urged dropping the term “Gonski” in favour of a clearer term that better communicates the content and intent of the full schooling reform package to parents, teachers and voters. Better Schools seems his preferred handle.

(Conveniently, this is already the name of the government’s official website for the reforms.)

The National Plan for School Improvement was Julia Gillard’s political raison d’etre. She commissioned the Gonski Review - named after its author, businessman David Gonski - as education minister back in 2010 and spear-headed the intergovernmental negotiations as part of her education “crusade”. She has said repeatedly that enabling every child to get a good education is the reason she went into politics.

But Gillard is no longer prime minister, and schools minister Peter Garrett who shared her commitment has also resigned.

Rudd’s speech today suggests a similar level of commitment, but a fresh approach.

A bumpy ride

In case you missed it, mere hours before Kevin Rudd returned as Labor leader, the legislation underpinning the government’s landmark “Gonski reforms” passed the Senate unamended and after only a few hours of debate.

The Australian Education Bill (2013) now establishes needs-based school funding formula across all sectors injecting an additional A$14.5 billion for schools over six years – that is, if all states and territories sign up and contribute one third of the cash. It will also enshrine far greater Commonwealth involvement in schools to implement other elements of the National Plan.

Education is one of Labor’s most popular policy fields. And the “Gonski” reforms - particularly the school funding elements - remain a key point of difference with the Coalition, who say they will dismantle the reforms if an “overwhelming majority” of states and territories do not sign up.

However, as some analysts have suggested, it is possible the reforms may drop lower on the government’s crowded to-do list, or be lost in the noise surrounding the leadership change.

And that may be a problem. Now that National Plan for School Improvement has passed the parliamentary hurdles, everything rides on the negotiations with the states towards Rudd’s new deadline of July 14. The new PM also indicated some flexibility on the funding offers on the table, stating he was a “reasonable man” and would have a “good think” about what was put to him by the premiers, emphasising, however, that at the end of the day, it was all about the national interest.

The more things change…

It is important to note that this isn’t the first leadership change since these intergovernmental negotiations began. Two other government leaders have been abruptly dumped by their colleagues – Victorian premier Ted Baillieu and Northern Territory chief minister Terry Mills.

Despite this, negotiations have continued. The fact that the NSW Liberal government quickly signed up, while Tasmania’s Labor government hasn’t yet, demonstrates that this goes beyond party politics and individual leaders.

But signing up to these reforms involves more than simply caring about public schools or accepting a “bucket of cash”. There are hefty conditions attached. In order to receive additional Commonwealth funding for their public schools, state governments must contribute large funding increases from their own limited budgets, commit to grow this funding by at least 3% per year, and agree to unprecedented Commonwealth involvement in the running of schools and school systems, including decision-making processes, additional reporting, and changes to teacher training and support.

The complex and inadequately scrutinised legislation raises additional questions about the scope and impact of the many ministerial directives and Commonwealth regulations which could even be unconstitutional. Remember, this unprecedented power over schooling – including the power to financially penalise states and perhaps even schools that don’t do as the government wants - would be in the hands of whoever wins the federal election – for example, Tony Abbott.

State of play

Despite concerns about how the reforms might jeopardise GST revenue, Tasmania is reportedly on the cusp of signing up, and is confident of working constructively with Kevin Rudd.

Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia still appear unlikely to sign up, but haven’t completely closed the door. These governments may yet be angling for a more generous offer, like that offered to Western Australia and the Australian Capital Territory recently. On this issue, Rudd has indicated some flexibility.

Victoria’s counter-offer to the Commonwealth this week is one such example. It is a striking contrast to their earlier statements that additional funding of this magnitude was not required. It is also seems to contradict their significant funding cuts to schools and TAFEs since coming to power in 2010.

While this new offer is undoubtedly better for Victorian students - $2.8bn extra over six years - it is unclear where this money would come from. A lot rides on the new treasurer Chris Bowen’s approach to the budget. Victoria also demanded it retains the right to distribute the funding as it sees fit - an odd demand, considering this right was never in jeopardy.

We don’t yet know who Rudd’s new schools minister will be, although Senator Jacinta Collins is a strong contender. As the parliamentary secretary for school education, she is already well versed in the minutiae of the reforms, and her promotion on Wednesday night to manager of government business in the Senate and deputy leader of the government in the Senate indicate support and respect from the Rudd team.

The Gillard government was very clear that states that do not sign up do not get extra funding for their public schools, a position reflected in the legislation that has separate funding formulae for public schools in participating versus nonparticipating states. Rudd’s position on this is not known – and the possibility of amending or getting around the “Abbott-proofed” legislation on this matter is questionable, at least in the short term, even if parliament returns for a final sitting before a later election date, as hinted by Rudd in his comment about “getting policy settings right” and “fresh ideas”.

Why it can’t stop now

The reforms have the potential to improve on the current funding arrangements in many ways. But they are still unfinished. If no progress is made in the intergovernmental negotiations, the result would arguably be worse than the situation the reforms were supposed to fix.

It would mean additional funds are allocated to Catholic and Independent schools (at least in the short term), and to public schools in NSW, South Australia and the ACT. But the majority of public schools – those in Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory who have not yet signed up – would be left with an unchanged or worse funding situation.

Given disadvantage is concentrated in public schools, these incomplete reforms could therefore exacerbate the inequalities and the miss-matched decision-making powers that Gonski sought to expel from Australia’s education system. This is because the legislation increases the control and involvement of the level of government furthest removed from classrooms.

The past few days have shown that 24 hours is a long time in politics. Many weeks or even months remain until the federal election. If more states sign up, it is likely the reforms will remain – bringing additional funding to schools (especially public schools) and additional control over them to whoever wins that election. If more states do not, then much more is up in the air.

This piece was updated to reflect the announcement made by Kevin Rudd on schools funding reform on Friday afternoon.