When an Australian government is willing to risk losing an election over the way it funds our poorest, most disadvantaged schools, rather than our wealthy schools, only then will meaningful change be possible.
School funding by the Australian Commonwealth Government is a controversial and risky issue. The fundamental problem does not lie in determining what is fair and reasonable. It lies in determining what is achievable.
Only a government can change school funding. But anything other than very modest change could bring about a change of government, thus removing the power to change anything at all.
Historically, it has been very difficult to take anything away from a powerful, influential sector of Australian society, business or industry. It is doubly difficult for a weak government. Part of the problem is that interest groups can exploit the Australian electorate’s appetite for fear and its underlying mistrust of politicians.
Take the attempts to introduce the mining tax, health fund subsidies and carbon tax, for example. The same key elements will play out in any attempt to change school funding. Even most reforms seeking to reduce the current funding to the richest schools could spark a fear campaign around “who is next?” and how it will impact on us all.
In any case, the electorate is unlikely to tolerate politicians who change the way the cake is sliced without suspecting they will reduce the size of the cake.
The art of the possible
The question becomes what might be possible. It may be possible for government to enter into a social contract with schools. In return for its government subsidy, the private sector might be able to more evenly distribute the heavy lifting with regard to children from low-socioeconomic backgrounds, children with behavioural problems or students with special needs.
Some might be expected to be less selective and take all comers, or they might moderate some restrictive selection processes. However, given that an alternative name for private schools is “independent schools”, even a modest social contract may be intolerable.
The unfair country
Australia has already decided it will support a private education sector. Many of our international competitors have decided to invest far more in education as a proportion of GDP than we have, often choosing a universally strong public education system.
Australia has taken a different path. We prefer a marketplace that creates competition and drives educational standards. This system demands we have winners and losers. This system does not require, indeed it in no way encourages, fairness in any way other than in rhetoric.
We have an educational race where children start in different places and can access different resources. But we declare it fair because the finishing line for all is in the same place. In this context, education is not about fairness or even education, per se. It is about getting a competitive advantage and comparative performance. Thus, a funding debate appealing to a sense of fairness is on shaky ground.
We often couch the funding debate as if there are two sectors: private and public. Yet, the non-government sector is diverse. It ranges from elitist private schools catering for the wealthy to relatively poor schools, even by comparison to government schools. There are some non-government schools that have much in common with selective government schools and some non-government schools that have much in common with local comprehensive schools.
A zero-sum debate benefits nobody
There are egalitarian private schools as well as schools which have selective criteria we would not tolerate in any other industry. The simplistic private/public classification of schools is based on ideology rather than deep analysis of the nature of particular Australian schools and their communities.
This simplistic dichotomy influences the way the debate about funding plays out. The perception is that one is either for or against funding all private schools. The flame of fear to be fanned is that it may not be your child’s school today, but tomorrow …
In this environment, with a mass media that increasingly sees its role as to advocate rather than to inform, and to inflame rather than calm, a nuanced debate is unlikely.
The consequence is that significant change seems politically untenable regardless of what may be educationally desirable.