The recent by-elections suggest that when it comes to the politics of schools funding, everything stays the same while everything changes.
In the wake of the recent by-election win by Labor in the electorate of Longman, there are reports of a growing assertiveness from Catholic school authorities claiming to have influenced the outcome through emails sent to parents at three Catholic schools. These advised them on the Friday before the next day’s by-election that Labor was promising a better deal for their schools than the Turnbull Government.
Had this message been conveyed in the form of a letter, the Turnbull Government would be entitled to take with a large grain of salt any claim that it influenced the by-election.
For my experience as a parent of four and that of other parents with whom I consorted has been that no children, whether aged 5 or 17, come home on a Friday afternoon, unpack their schoolbags and present their parents with communications in a timely manner.
No, it is on Sunday night that parents, mainly mothers, ferret out the contents of the schoolbags: the festering lunchboxes and the crumpled notes that inform them that their child needs to come dressed as a lettuce or a fox for a performance in the Monday morning assembly.
But we live in the age of disruption. This was an email and not a letter that conveyed voting instructions to Catholic school parents in Longman. That changes the game. It enables eleventh-hour interventions in elections without the time for analysis or reflection.
Catholic school authorities are ideally placed to pressure governments, in this case the Commonwealth, for increased funding since the church itself now has very little financial ‘skin’ in the game. Like almost all private schools, Catholic schools are now funded by governments and parents, while their owners, largely religious, continue to set the conditions and the price that govern student access to them.
Children in public schools, however, cannot rely on their school authorities, namely state and territory governments, to identify their needs or apply the same pressure on their behalf as their private sector counterparts. Why? Because under our irrational split in responsibilities between the two levels of government – state and Commonwealth – it is state governments that would have to foot most of the bill.
Thus the Longman by-election foreshadows yet another general election when the focus of national attention will be on private schools rather than on the public schools that carry the responsibility for the provision of educating all-comers without discrimination and that serve the majority of students.
What is new, however, is that we are now witnessing is a change in the relationship between the Catholic church and its schools. Where the church traditionally used its own political power to garner public money for its schools, it is now the largely publicly-funded school system that is being used by the church to shore up its own hold on political power.
Lyndsay Connors AO is the co-author with Jim McMorrow of the 2015 report Imperatives in Schools Funding: Equity, sustainability and achievement, published by the Australian Council for Educational Research.