In the lead up to the government’s response to the Gonski reforms, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has promised no school will lose funding under the new arrangements.
In fact, “every independent school in Australia will see their funding increase under our plan,” Gillard said yesterday at a meeting of Independent Schools.
The promise comes after independent and Catholic education systems raised concerns that modelling showed one in three schools would be worse off if the Gonski reforms were applied.
But if the government sticks to its promise and leaves no schools worse off, it would be perpetuating an unfair system and undermine some of the good work in the Gonski reforms.
The Catholic school system is diverse. In fact you could argue there are two distinct systems – low-fee parochial schools catering to a low-socioeconomic status (SES) and culturally diverse student cohort and those schools that serve students in the same socio-economic group as high-end private schools.
That these schools are funded equally and not on the basis of need, comes from the Howard government dispensing with the logic of its own socio-economically differentiated policy to create a category of Catholic grant-maintained schools.
These high-SES Catholic schools are substantially over-funded in comparison with both state and non-Catholic independent schools.
While it is true that the Catholic authorities can redistribute funds to educate more low-SES students, Gonski himself has remarked on the lack of transparency and consistency in such arrangements. In essence, under the current system taxpayers are unable to see where their money goes and why it is given to one Catholic school over another.
Over a barrel
The power of the Catholic lobby to hold both Catholic parochial schools as well as non-Catholic independent schools to ransom is clear. Research has shown that despite claims by the Catholic authorities that they re-distribute the money fairly from high-income to disadvantaged Catholic schools, the high-income schools remain over-funded.
This comes from a carefully-crafted strategy that properly overturned Labor objections to the funding of religious schools in the 1960s, and then rejected the Susan Ryan federal education ministry offer to integrate Catholic schools serving similar demographics to state-schools into the public system.
This opened the way for the dramatic increase in the Australian private-school sector, but now has become a double-edged sword. The system as it currently stands goes against the idea that all schools should be funded equitably, whether public or private, religious or secular.
Given Labor’s history with Catholic backlash though, the government is clearly reluctant to take on the supposed might of the Catholic Church in favour of advancing equity.
Equally, few in the Coalition ranks, are keen to close-off the Catholic schools funding advantage loop-hole.
Catholic schools in the public sector
The government should consider not sanctioning a blanket increase for all independent schools. Instead, during its re-evaluation of schools funding, it should integrate low-SES Catholic and similar other denominational schools within a devolved public-sector, as is the case in New Zealand, Britain, Europe and some Canadian provinces.
This would mean that the Catholic schools with a low-SES student cohort would sit within the public system while Catholic schools with high-SES students remain private.
If Gonski’s recommendations were implemented fully, this would then mean that funding would be delivered to all schools, whether Catholic or otherwise, on the basis of need with additional money for disadvantaged and indigenous students.
And instead of money redistributed by the Catholic authorities behind closed doors, funding arrangements would be more transparent.
Integration would also enable Catholic schools to fulfil their mission – to educate the poor – rather than take on the characteristics of private schooling. This has created a vast Catholic educational bureaucracy of its own and resulted in the largest private-school sector in the world.
New Zealand, for example, has no private Catholic schools and in Europe they can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
A fairer system
If low-SES Catholic schools were funded on the same, transparent basis as equivalent state-schools it would enable choice and competition within this palpably disadvantaged end of the education sector.
School results would also automatically improve, thereby redressing Gonski’s concerns about the depressing “long-tail” of Australian low-SES under-achievement.
And, it would release the resources of parents in both private and public schools to contribute more equitably, through tax imposts or fees commensurate with their socio-economic means, to building Gonski’s proposed more equitable, transparent, accountable and choice-driven school reforms.