The past few weeks have seen some wild twists and turns in the politics of Australian school funding.
Debates were re-ignited when Fairfax obtained a leaked discussion paper from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet that advanced a number of radical ideas for reforming school funding.
The Coalition swiftly distanced itself from the most extreme options in the paper, including charging high-income parents to send their children to public schools.
The report echoed growing arguments that school funding arrangements in Australia’s federal system are increasingly messy, inequitable and unsustainable.
The report also showed federal increases in school funding have risen more sharply for non-government schools than government schools since the 1970s.
This week advocacy group Save Our Schools released an analysis of funding data from 2009-2013, arguing state/territory funding for schools has fallen for public schools but risen for independent schools.
Unsurprisingly, each of these reports has been accompanied by heated and often polarised debates in the media, twitter-sphere and among experts.
Can’t see the wood for the trees?
It is often hard to get clarity over the state of Australian school funding.
While funding has always been a perplexing area of policy, it has descended into a hazy quagmire since the release of the Gonski Report in 2011.
This is ironic, given the Gonski review was designed to clean up school funding in our nation.
School funding is hard to grasp because it is made up of a complex set of policies and formulas that differ across states, territories and sectors (public, Catholic and independent).
The confusion in recent debates, however, owes just as much to misleading political and public debates, which further obscure this already complex policy field.
Indeed, some statements and opinion pieces about Gonski border on fantasy – distorting the facts of the report so heavily that the “net effect” is a grand artifice of debate built upon non-truths and heresy.
Current debates are handicapped by a number of myths, which need to be overcome if the funding debate is going to evolve towards greater clarity.
Myth 1: public schools versus private schools
There is a wealth of quality data that reveals important differences between the funding of government, Catholic and independent schools.
These differences need to be taken seriously and rigorously scrutinised to determine whether school funding arrangements are equitable.
The problem is, such data is often misconstrued or simplified down to an argument that pits public and private schools against each other.
A common misconception is that Australia has one “public” sector (funded by taxpayers) and one “private” sector (funded by parents).
Frequently, for example, I am asked the question:
Why should parents pay taxes to send other people’s children to public schools when they already pay to send them to a private school?
This question reflects a widespread misunderstanding about how schools are actually funded.
The truth is, there is no such thing as a purely “private” school in Australia. All schools in Australia receive money from governments.
As the graph below shows, the key difference between sectors is not whether one receives government funding or not.
Instead, the key issue at stake is the amount and proportion of funds that come from either federal or state/territory governments, and from “private” sources such as parental fees.
All schools, therefore, are publicly supported.
Rather than pitting public and private schools against each other, the debate should instead focus on whether or not “the mix” of funding provided to schools, regardless of state or sector, is fair and maximises opportunities for all young Australians.
This is exactly what the Gonski report sought to do in making recommendations to develop a funding model that is “needs-based” and “sector-blind”. In other words, a model that funds schools based on need, rather than whether schools are government, Catholic or independent.
Myth 2: Labor is the pro-Gonski party
We hear a lot these days about how federal Labor committed to funding schools for six years based on a Gonski-inspired model, but the federal Coalition will only fund the first four years.
This is true, but does not tell the whole story.
Often ignored in this “six vs four year” debate is that federal Labor never produced a funding model that faithfully represented the core principles of the Gonski report.
Instead, the principles of the Gonski reform were compromised from the word go, when Labor promised that no school would lose a dollar under the plan.
Instead of a “needs-based” and “sector-blind” model, therefore, Australia was delivered a model that protected the vested interests of Catholic and independent schools.
The Victorian Labor government has also distorted the principles of Gonski, by passing a curious piece of legislation that ensures a minimum of 25% of state government funding for government schools will be allocated to the independent and Catholic sectors.
Labor leader Bill Shorten has also refused to commit to the last two years of the Gonski reform if elected.
These crucial facts are often forgotten by pro-Gonski supporters, who paint Labor as the “Gonski party”. The reality is Labor governments have shied away from the bold reforms called for under Gonski.
This is not to suggest the Coalition has a better plan. It doesn’t. It is not only clear the Coalition has no intention of pursuing Gonski-based reforms, it also appears to be considering a range of other weird and wonderful options.
Myth 3: ‘How much?’ is the key question
While school funding is clearly important, it is by no means the “magic bullet solution” to fix Australian schools.
Gonski is not the messiah.
A myth that has circulated since the Gonski report has been that the greatest equity question in Australian schooling is about “how much” cash schools get.
By focusing on “amounts of cash”, debates have obscured the equally important question of “what schools do” with the cash.
We could give a school all the money in the world, but if there is bad leadership, an incoherent curriculum or poor teaching practices, it is simply wasted money.
By focusing on “how much”, the school funding debate promotes a very narrow vision of what “equity” means in schools.
We constantly hear debates about the inequitable distribution of money, but how often do we have a debate about the inequitable distribution of quality teachers or curriculum options?
Any injection of cash into schools, therefore, needs to be accompanied by monitoring and accountability measures that ensure money is “well spent”.
Back to the (Gonski) future…
The Gonski report was a landmark moment in the history of Australian school funding and an unprecedented opportunity to develop an equitable funding model.
Unfortunately, the politics of distraction, fuelled by political leaders afraid to disrupt the status quo, has ensured the principles of Gonski remain unfulfilled.
It is time, therefore, to revisit the future proposed by Gonski and to stem the flow of bad ideas that are driving school funding into a political mess.
Glenn will be on hand for an Author Q&A between 1 and 2m AEST on Thursday, July 9. Post your questions in the comments section below.