View from The Hill

Gonski hangs in the balance amid the politicking

Julia Gillard has committed herself to education reforms. AAP/Lukas Coch

Julia Gillard has set an April deadline for a breakthrough with the states for a new schools funding system. She reiterated on Friday that “the big test” would come when she met the premiers then and declared “I hope the premiers will rise to the challenge”.

But Gillard herself is the one who has most at stake. If she can’t get an agreement then or very soon after, she could be left with a big hole in her election pitch.

Her talk and the parliamentary and electoral timetables ensure she will be judged toughly. She know she has to throw everything at trying cut a deal on the proposed Gonski funding model at that Council of Australian governments meeting. But her problem is that key states will not just have issues of money and detail, but also an eye to the federal election which will be only several months away.

Unsurprisingly, Queensland and Western Australia are making negative noises and now Victoria, fresh from forcing the Commonwealth to backtrack on hospital funding, has produced an alternative.

The Victorians say their plan, released at the weekend, would be phased in from next year and when fully operating would deliver more than $400 million extra (federal and state money) a year for Victorian schools. Its elements include increased funding to disadvantaged government schools; a voucher system (called a “pupil premium”) to follow disadvantaged students to any school, and more consistent funding across government and non-government schools for students with disability.

One of Victoria’s gripes with the Commonwealth’s approach is that it believes the federal plan to secure teaching and other reforms - yesterday Gillard announced all schools and states would be asked to sign up to a “national reading blitz” - to go with the new funding system is too intrusive on schools and the state.

The Gonski plan would cost $6.5 billion annually when fully operating but the cash-strapped federal government is proposing a modest start – about $1 billion from federal and state levels combined in 2014.

The Gillard government wants a comprehensive April agreement with all states that would then go into the framework legislation on Gonski that is now before Parliament; that legislation would be passed in the June sitting, the last before the election. (Suggestions last week that the Greens were posing a threat to the legislation were wrong; they said they would move an amendment to benefit the poorest schools but if it was defeated they would still vote for the bill.)

Despite the harsh rhetoric federal Labor sources claim to be optimistic that an agreement, with some local variations between states, will be reached because, they say, that would be in the states’ self-interest. Whether this can happen will essentially depend on whether Victoria, Queensland and WA are adopting negotiating positions or deliberately digging political trenches. If it’s the latter, they know they only have to hold out for a brief time beyond the April COAG, before there is a likely Abbott government.

The federal opposition’s position is that it supports the present funding system, based on socio economic regions. But it is open to adopting a Gonski-type loading system for disability, indigenous students, non-English speaking students and economic disadvantage.

If Labor fails to achieve a comprehensive agreement, Canberra will do deals with those individual states that are willing to play and put those into the legislation.

But this would be a messy result on which to go to the election; certainly a great deal less than ideal for a PM who repeated on Friday: “Education is the defining passion of my political life”.