FactCheck: are the Gonski school reforms a federal power grab?

The states traditionally run our schools, but new laws shift power to the Commonwealth. AAP Image/Dan Peled

“There is a fox in the chicken coop in this plan and that is that the federal minister for education will have unprecedented power over state schools, and Tasmania, Western Australia, Queensland, Victoria and the Northern Territory don’t want that and I agree with them.” - Opposition education spokesman Christopher Pyne, doorstop interview, July 2.

The government’s school reforms are designed to fund schools on the basis of the needs of their students, with extra loadings for schools with a high number of disadvantaged students. Whether you support that idea in principle or not, one of the persistent criticisms of the reforms from the opposition and the states is that they also shift significant power over schools to the Commonwealth.

At the time of Pyne’s statement, NSW, South Australia, and the ACT had all signed up to the better schools plan (formerly known as the Gonski reforms). Since then, Tasmania has also reached an agreement with the federal government, ahead of the new prime minster Kevin Rudd’s extended 14 July deadline.

But before it reached an agreement, Tasmania (a Labor State) had said the new laws “represented a significant shift in responsibility for education from the States and Territories to the Commonwealth”.

New Education Minister Bill Shorten is meeting with hold-out states, including Victoria, about their concerns regarding the degree of federal involvement in schools.

But former schools minister Peter Garrett insisted before he quit the ministry that it was not shift in power: “In fact our plan specifically requires state governments to increase the decision-making powers of local school principals.” The government has said it is “only fair” to ensure that the money invested goes where it is needed.

So who’s right? And does it matter, particularly for students and parents?

In brief, Pyne and the states are right. This is a significant shift, although it isn’t possible to gauge the full extent of it until regulations are released.

Schools are a state responsibility, historically and constitutionally. However, while the states run public schools and oversee schooling, the Commonwealth since the Menzies government has contributed to funding using tied or conditional grants. While the states are not legally obliged to accept these payments, their financial circumstances make it effectively impossible to refuse.

So, while the Commonwealth has been involved in education for many years, the new laws, regulations and related agreements signify unprecedented federal power over schools at a far more detailed level than previously.

Under the federal financial relations reforms put in place in 2008 to sort out the overlapping roles of the Commonwealth and the states, the conditions attached to federal grants were minimal, although there were agreed outcomes to be achieved. The new legislation overturns that initiative and tightens federal control over schools, whether or not a state signs up to the Gonski reforms.

As well, while the Commonwealth provides only 30% of the funding for schools, the conditions apply to the operation of schools as a whole and therefore to the entire function of education. For example, under section 15 of the Act, the Commonwealth can determine which levels of education are “primary” and “secondary”. It has the power, if it wants to use it, to change the structure of a state’s school system even if that state and its citizens disagree.

Section 22 of the Act makes federal payments subject to the condition that the states “implement national policy initiatives for school education” in accordance with the regulations, which are still to be made. These initiatives relate to the core business of education and, as the Tasmanian submission to the Senate committee inquiry into the laws noted, these initiatives do not require negotiation or agreement with the states.

Each school will be required to have an “authority” approved by the Commonwealth to which grants will be paid. The states are deemed to be authorities, in relation to their government schools, but the Commonwealth can revoke this if it chooses.

The authorities for schools must comply with policy requirements in relation to teacher performance, a curriculum to be prescribed by federal regulations, a national assessment program and a “school improvement framework” that, again, is to be prescribed by regulations.

And each school authority, including the participating states, must have an “implementation plan” setting out “activities, programs and initiatives” in relation to which the federal minister may give “directions”. The legislation makes it clear that this is a unilateral and not a co-operative exercise.

The states are concerned because this legislation makes major inroads into their primary responsibility for the running of schools and collaborating with each other on joint policy objectives. It also overrides what they argue is their experience and local knowledge in running schools and their capacity to deliver services more effectively than the Commonwealth. And it weakens the opportunities offered by a federal system for particular states to experiment with new initiatives in response to new ideas and to respond to local needs.

While some of the powers conferred on the commonwealth in the new law require it to “have regard” to arrangements in a state or to “any decisions” of the relevant intergovernmental councils, these are weak collaborative requirements.

Reallocating funds to schools on the basis of need is one thing. But the 2012 Gonski report into Australia’s education system also emphasised the importance of respecting the expertise and experience of the states in running schools, and the new federal laws fall short of this. You can debate whether this is a good or bad thing for education, but it is undeniable.

Verdict

Pyne is correct. The new Australian Education Act represents an unprecedented and significant further centralisation of power in favour of the Commonwealth over the states.


Review

I agree with this assessment. The Commonwealth will obtain potentially wide powers with respect to schooling in the states through this Act and its broad regulation-making powers. It may be that the Commonwealth does not intend to use these powers in an intrusive manner, but this can’t be guaranteed for future governments.

It is not possible to describe the government’s education reforms as simply a means to achieve better funding for schools. If that was the sole aim, it could be done by providing the money without new conditions and powers. This legislation clearly goes beyond that aim by significantly expanding Commonwealth power. – Anne Twomey.

The Conversation is fact checking political statements in the lead-up to this year’s federal election. Statements are checked by an academic with expertise in the area. A second academic expert reviews an anonymous copy of the article.Request a check at checkit@theconversation.edu.au. Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.