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From Gonski to gone to Gonski again: school funding future remains uncertain

It’s not too often you see a backflip on a backflip, but education minister Christopher Pyne has managed it. AAP/Stefan Postles

It seems we’re in Gonski groundhog day. The repeated backflips and policy position switches from the Abbott government – only three months into its term – have been astounding.

After announcing last week they would dump the so-called Gonski model and the former government’s deals with the states, this latest announcement sees three new states sign up and the government honouring the other state deals again.

But the government is only committing to four years of these agreements, not the original six promised by the Gillard government – leaving the states missing around 70% of the funding they were first promised.

The precious little policy detail available and rhetorical back and forth still leaves much uncertainty about the future of schools funding. But in this debacle, the real aims of the Gonski review’s recommendations have been forgotten.

Forgetting Gonski

For six years the Coalition has repeatedly told us that the Howard government’s model for school funding was working.

They said the schools were getting the money they needed, and education minister Christopher Pyne even recently claimed that he believed there was no equity problem to address in Australian education.

This made the government’s school funding reforms – which saw a fairer funding system based on need based on David Gonski’s review – unnecessary.

Now the coalition says it will go through with the Gonski model but it will strip the “command and control” aspect of the Australian Education Act – the legislation underpinning the reforms. These were always a major roadblock for Queensland, Northern Territory and West Australian in signing up to the Labor scheme.

This simply gave federal oversight of tax-payer contributed funds. In fact, it is exactly the stronger governance and accountability that the Gonski Review originally recommended.

In this latest announcement, Pyne and prime minister Tony Abbott have also dropped the requirement that the states co-contribute funds – another key plank of the Gonski reforms. This leaves the newly signed up states to take as much as they like out of school funding while the commonwealth pours money in.

Over the last few years, most states have ripped money out of public education, to the tune of billions of dollars. The fact that the co-contribution requirement has gone will mean more state funding could go, leaving state schools, that have the most disadvantaged students, worse off.

Command and control

Pyne and Abbott both repeatedly said they don’t want to interfere with how states run their schools. But this sits oddly with another part of their electoral program.

Abbott went to the election with his Real Solutions booklet as his core political platform. Its “Delivering better education” policy seeks to encourage “state schools to choose to become independent schools, providing simpler budgeting and resources allocation and more autonomy in decision making”.

The rationale to justify the drive for more school autonomy is driven by a misguided belief that it improves student results.

Victoria, which led the world in increasing autonomy, has not performed above New South Wales, which was until recently the most centralised.

The funding argument

In anticipation of further falls in Australia’s performance in the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results - due out tonight - Pyne has once again reiterated the furphy that while education funding has increased 44% in the last decade, education standards have declined.

He argues that resources are not the issue but teacher quality, principal autonomy and parental engagement.

This nonsensical figure, estimated by Ben Jensen of the Grattan Institute, has been used by politicians of all sides. But the facts are that apart from the 2008-09 spending that helped save Australia’s economy from meltdown, according to World Bank figures, Australia’s spend on education as a proportion of GDP has declined from 4.9% in 1999 to 4.4% in 2011.

Figures also show that only 71% of Australian government spending goes to public schools. The majority of the increase in government school funding over the past decade has gone to private schools. Since 2010, more than A$5 billion has been removed from public education in Queensland, NSW and Victoria.

Significantly, Commonwealth funding for non-government schools rose from around $3.50 for each dollar spent on public schools, to around $5 per dollar since 1997. In 2009, the Commonwealth provided 74% of all government net recurrent funding for the Catholic sector and 73% in the independent sector. Canberra now gives more money to private schools than it does to universities: more than $36 billion in federal funds has gone to non-government schools in the period 2009-2013.

If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

“If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” – this has been the Liberal Party mantra since the Gonski review commenced. Abbott and Pyne are ideologically wedded to increasing funding for independent schools as their priority, as part of their “school choice” program. We also know that they fundamentally dislike the Gonski model and don’t see any problem in the inequitable school funding model we have at the moment.

They are now faced with the dilemma of having to stick to some form of the “Gonski-lite” program of the previous government for at least the next four years and through at least one election. It’s clear, they’ve changed their position for political expediency. But this latest announcement doesn’t mean their problems have gone away, they are now only delayed.

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