FactCheck: did Labor cut $1.2 billion from schools funding?

Former Education Minister Bill Shorten addresses the teachers rally in WA: but did he cut their funding? AAP

“I think it’s more than a tad hypocritical of the Labor Party to be campaigning against what it says are cuts to school funding when Bill Shorten as education minister cut $1.2 billion out of school funding just before the election. There is $1.2 billion more in school funding now then there was in the Pre-Election Financial Outlook statements because we’ve put the money in that Bill Shorten cut out.” – Tony Abbott


These comments from prime minister Tony Abbott came after opposition leader Bill Shorten addressed a teachers’ strike to protest education cuts by Western Australia’s Liberal state government. So is Abbott justified in calling Shorten a hypocrite?

The A$1.2 billion Tony Abbott refers to was additional funding that the former Labor government offered to three states to entice them to sign up to its Gonski school funding model before the last federal election. When those states – Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory – did not sign up in time, the $1.2 billion was removed from Labor’s forward estimates. The Coalition called this a “cut” in funding.

When the Coalition government’s education minister Christopher Pyne reversed his decision to abolish the Gonski reforms, he also promised to restore the additional $1.2 billion in funding that had been taken out of the forward estimates.

Verdict

The claim is half-right. It is wrong to accuse Labor of cutting $1.2 billion out of school funding when the money was never anything more than a conditional offer. But when Pyne adopted the Gonski model last December, the Coalition government did commit an additional $1.2 billion to schools funding – so this part of Abbott’s statement is correct.


Review

I agree with the verdict, but the context and detail here is very significant. It is not just about figures but about how and where the additional money is to be used. The repeated backflips and policy position switches from the Abbott government – so early into its term – have been astounding.

After announcing they would dump the Gonski model and the former government’s deals with the states, three new states signed up and the government honoured the other state deals again.

But the government is only committing to four years of these agreements, not the original six promised by the Gillard government – leaving the states missing around 70% of the funding they were first promised.

Moreover, the $1.2 billion comes with “no strings” attached - there is no requirement for the three states to contribute any money of their own on public education. There’s nothing to stop the money being used to support new private schools or to further advantage already well funded schools.

This leaves these newly signed up states to take as much as they like out of school funding while the commonwealth pours money in.

Over the last few years, Queensland and the Northern Territory have taken money out of public education, to the tune of billions of dollars. The fact that the co-contribution requirement has gone will mean more state funding could go, leaving state schools, that have the most disadvantaged students, worse off. - David Zyngier