School funding has been a tortured issue for government, and especially federal Labor governments, for most of the past half century.
Since the seminal Karmel Report of 1973, the funding levels and relativities of government and non-government schools have been strongly contested. The recent Gonski review of school funding commissioned by the Commonwealth Government for the first time, since a schools commission proposal in 1975, has put forward a proposal for an integrated and cross sectorally consistent approach to school funding.
Fund according to need
It does this through a proposal for a school resource standard against which government funding should be allocated for government and non-government schools.
The level of public funding for non-government schools would be discounted against a measure of their capacity for private income, but could be up to 90% of the resource standard. Some non-government schools could be funded at 100%. The application of increased funding for educational need would apply to government and non-government schools upon the basis of common measures. Here need, for the first time, includes the concentration of needs within some schools.
The report should be welcomed by all three school sectors: government, Catholic and independent, although this is unlikely. It does have weaknesses, including the continued capacity of non-government schools to control their enrolments through fees and other measures.
But no Australian government is going to challenge this element of the autonomy of non-government schools that has existed since the 1870s. The approach of the Gonski panel has been to recognise the impact of selective enrolments through increased resourcing for educational need, including its concentration.
Political courage, or the lack thereof
The main problem with the report is its timing. It has come out at a bad time in the economic and political cycles, and is in the hands of a government that is in a weak position to implement it.
This timing compounds a problem of its negotiation with the states and territories. The Gonski report proposes a more prominent role for the Commonwealth in school education, a more integrated relationship between the levels of government in the governance of Australian schooling – including the establishment of new governing and advisory bodies, and an expectation that the states and territories will contribute to the extra $5bn that it proposes.
One step at a time
This is ambitious to say the least. On the other hand, the report is adroit in attempting to shift the focus of school funding and governance away from the relations between public and private schools to inter-governmental relations.
Its proposal that it would be possible to negotiate these relations on a state-by-state, or territory, basis is also adroit. On the other hand the response of the government in announcing yet more consultations is hardly encouraging.
The response of the Federal Opposition has been intensely negative and ludicrously political. The main hope is that one state or territory, where the best chance lies with a smaller jurisdiction, will see the opportunities in working through the Gonski proposals with the Commonwealth and their non-government school agencies.