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Gonski watered down: how does the current policy compare?

Kevin Rudd may be king of the kids, but how does his Better Schools policy compare with the original Gonski review of schools funding? AAP/James Elby

It’s been a very long road for those wanting school funding reform. But it looks as though now the government version of the Gonski review is here to stay.

Five states and territories are now on board, with Victoria signing up just this weekend. Opposition leader Tony Abbott too has reversed his previous position and will now guarantee the funding model for at least four years (while making some changes to the federal ministers powers).

The new system will follow the basic model outlined under the Gonski review – that is, moving to a per student resource standard with extra funding given to schools with higher numbers of disadvantaged students.

But how do the new arrangements with the states compare to the recommendations of the original Gonski’s report?

The foremost recommendation of the Gonski report - to replace the outdated, opaque and overly complex funding of schools - has been achieved. The current policy position also follows another core recommendation, that the money follows the students and is based on need. Compare this to the current multiple funding models, only one of which is based on a measure of a school’s need.

The government has also broadly followed Gonski’s estimated base amount. The panel said this would be need to be around A$10,500 per secondary and $8,000 per primary student. The amount has now been set for $12,193 per secondary and $9,271 per primary student.

But there are major differences. First, the total cost. The original Gonski report estimated if these arrangements had been implemented in full during 2009, the additional cost to governments would have been about $5 billion per year. Now, with phase-in periods extending (for instance, Victoria only needs to reach 95% of the schooling resource standard by 2022), the amount thins out. The federal government estimates an additional $9.8 billion over six years from 2014‑15 (or around one and a half billion per year).

Funding is increasing, but isn’t $5 billion anymore. Australian government.

Recommendation 25 in the original report called for transitional funding that recognised the need for extensive negotiation. And the deals have been somewhat flexible. For instance, under its recent compromise deal, Victoria does not have to increase annual education spending by 3% until 2016, two years later than the Commonwealth had initially demanded.

The government has also modified Gonski’s recommendations on the loadings for students with specific needs. The report recommends loading for students from the bottom quarter of low-income families. The government has expanded this to include students in the bottom half of the socioeconomic measure. Also, every Indigenous student now attracts extra funding. The wider application of the loadings provided extra funding for a further 875,000 students from low-income families as well as a further 31,900 indigenous students.

Students with disabilities have not received as much attention. The original report promises nationally consistent data collection on students with disability has been established and an appropriate funding loading developed. In the meantime, an interim loading has been calculated via estimation. Governments have paid lip service to a solution. For example, the Commonwealth and South Australia agreed to improved the measure and funding of students with disability.

There has been more clear progress on the recommendation to negotiate with Independent and Catholic systems. These schools are now on board. The Australian government will, as recommended, have a greater role in funding government schools, while the states will give more to non-government schools. This agreement includes the caveat that independent schools with disadvantaged students that had received national partnerships or targeted program funding over the past three years would not lose funding when these programs were cut.

The next step is to design a new measure of wealth that assesses the capacity of the parents enrolling their children in non-government schools to contribute financially towards the school’s resources. Gonski originally recommended a National Schools Resourcing Body that would regulate such decisions. But this idea was scrapped in September 2012. The representative advisory group – which would have provided advice to the body on schooling matters — was also binned.

There has been so much fanfare around the funding that other recommendations have played second fiddle. For example, Gonski pushes for increased data collection, but we have yet to see if the promised annual State of Our Schools report will suffice. Same with philanthropy. Gonski dedicated seven pages to donations, but there has been no visible increase in charitable donations.

What of the Gonski recommendation to allow School Planning Authorities to coordinate new school buildings and expansions? And other details, like creating a national definition of the maintenance and minor works responsibilities? Both seem to have fallen by the wayside.

And there is the issue of the federal ministers powers. In many ways, the government’s reforms also expands the role of the federal government. For instance, it would develop a National Accreditation of Initial Teacher Education Programs, a literacy and numeracy assessment for student teachers, and the Australian Curriculum.

But states have raised the red flag and bargained hard to limit the expansion of federal powers. Even the Gonski report encouraged states and territories to make deals that reflected specific funding and educational requirements of that jurisdiction. Victoria has taken this one step further and demanded that the Commonwealth incorporate regulations into the legislation that constrain the Commonwealth from unilaterally intervening in schools.

This check on Federal power ensures that education remains a state and local issue. Indeed, former head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Terry Moran sees Victoria as being ahead of the game in terms of devolving responsibility.

As with any political proposition, there has been give-and-take. It is heartening to see that the bare minimum—reform of a woefully antiquated funding formula—has been accomplished. The funding is nowhere near what was promised, but at least the stage has been set. Now the fine balance of state responsibility without compromising the education of disadvantaged students begins.

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