Gillard and Abbott’s ‘race to the top’ to support private schools

The debate on schools funding has taken a strange turn with both sides racing to increase funding to private schools. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

In a political echo of the unseemly bi-partisan “race to the bottom” over asylum seekers, we now have a “race to the top” with the prime minister and opposition leader vying to offer the most support to non-government schools.

Prime minister Julia Gillard earlier this week told a private school forum that “every independent school in Australia will see their funding increase” under the government’s new funding plan. “This plan will lift school standards, not school fees,” she said.

Abbott on the other hand told the forum that because 66% of Australian school students who attend public schools get 79% of government funding “there is no question of injustice to public schools here. If anything, the injustice is the other way.” Abbott reached this conclusion because the 34% of students who attend independent schools get 21% of government funding.

In a backdown away from Abbott’s comments the opposition’s education spokesperson, Christopher Pyne later said there was no injustice in regards to funding independent schools, saying the current level of funding for both independent and government schools is “appropriate.”

Pyne also stated publicly last month that there isn’t an equity issue in Australian schools and that the problem was with student outcomes. He has also declared that any government changes to the funding model of schools would be repealed under a coalition government.

Extending privileges for the privileged

This latest unedifying part of the debate comes after 10 years of public critique of the iniquitous funding formula. A system developed by the Howard government and continued under the Rudd and Gillard governments that is blind to the real needs of students, as well as schools and teachers and sees the most disadvantaged students in our community receiving the least amount of funding.

The results of this 12 year program have only extended the privileges of the already privileged.

The fact is that the fundamental pattern for the last 12 years of Australian Government funding for schools is that while most additional funding goes to non‐government schools this has never prevented private schools raising their annual fees more than 10% per annum.

Those most concerned with public education today in Australia were, until now, quietly optimistic that the unfair education funding system would be changed.

A growing chorus of parents, teachers, principals as well as those within the business community and charity groups (including Business Council of Australia’s Jennifer Westacott, Westpac’s Gail Kelly, ACOSS’ Cassandra Goldie and the Smith Family’s CEO Lisa Ryan) all called on Julia Gillard to implement the reforms recommended by David Gonski in his review of school funding.

Breaking new ground

The Gonski Review sought to change an unfair system into one that was more transparent, financially sustainable and effective in promoting excellent outcomes for all students.

Gonski looked forward to an education system premised on ensuring educational outcomes that were “not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions”.

When the Gonski Review was released earlier this year, it a was watershed moment in the debate on schools funding. It embraced the OECD definition of equity in education as its starting point; that every child should be able to achieve her potential regardless of social, cultural or economic background or their relationship to property, power or possession.

Gonski also gave overdue recognition to the fact that disadvantage has been “rusted on” to our education system. And he finally acknowledged our private schools whether independent or Catholic are not looking after our most vulnerable students.

Disadvantaging the disadvantaged

But there were weaknesses in the report. Gonski in fact understated the great weight of disadvantage shouldered by our public schools, the same who are least equipped and able to deal with this disadvantage: 85% of indigenous students, 78% of disabled students, 79% of low SES students attend our public schools.

While the rhetoric around social justice is espoused by both independent and especially Catholic school sectors that they are looking after the poor, in reality they are not.

Research by Professor Richard Teese demonstrates this issue clearly.

The Gonski Review does not have the depth of analysis about this disadvantage but politically it may have been impossible.

False premises … flawed data

The review’s resource based funding model starts with a false premise. Since the Karmel Report 40 years ago, we have witnessed a slow but ever-increasing movement of taxpayer’s dollars from public schools to the private sector, all apparently on the basis of Commonwealth provision for school education on the principle of “need”.

The Gonski Review has accepted as holy writ the “unique Australian tradition” that if parents decide not to send their child to the local public school, then the rest of the country is required to subsidise that choice. No other OECD country has such a tradition yet Gonski said these examples don’t count.

Statistics or lies

Abbott’s claims in this debate could be a case of lies, damn lies and statistics. Just because private schools gain 21% of the education budget and represent 34% of all school students is irrelevant.

What is relevant is the total funding per student including what parents voluntarily contribute to the private school. What has happened to the “user pays” theory of liberal philosophy?

Did it go out the door for the wealthy, and only apply to those who can least afford to pay in society?

What are the facts?

Recent pronouncements by opposition education spokesperson Christopher Pyne, are replete with false assumptions based on flawed data. The claim that Australian school education funding has increased by 44% since 2009 has been repeated so often that it is now accepted as truth.

The fact is that the fundamental pattern of Australian government funding for schools is that most additional funding goes to non‐government schools. OECD figures tell another story.

In 2001 Australia’s education expenditure was 4.9% of GDP falling to 4.4% in 2008 before rising to 5.1% in 2009 as a result of the BER capital investment in all schools. Over the same period government education expenditure as a percentage of total government expenditure in Australia fell from 14.2% to 12.9%.

Annual government expenditure on Australian government schools was $US6980 per student, compared to the OECD average of $US7262. Australia ranked 15th of the 22 OECD countries. The difference in spending on secondary students is even lower.

Finland’s government expenditure on schools was $US7178 per student. In Finland government expenditure on education was 6.1% of GDP in 2001 rising to 6.8% in 2009.

Why $5 billion (or more) is needed …

The reason for the $5 billion price tag is because the Gillard government pledged that no school would be worse of as a result of any reform to funding schedules. But in actual fact even the $5 billion is less than one half of 1 % of GDP.

OECD research explains that any increase in student outcomes has a correlative increase in productivity – so in effect this extra funding will return as additional taxes and productivity for Australia.

But despite its weakness, the recommendations of the Gonski review remain a strong step in the right direction and should be implemented in full and as soon as possible.

Gillard and Abbott need to take the recommendations on balance, look at the facts and elevate the debate around this important policy issue.