An unholy alliance between Tanya Plibersek and Tony Abbott on overfunding of private schools was again revealed this week. Labor’s position on overfunding was exposed as morally bankrupt, cynical and at complete odds with its supposed support for the principle of needs-based school funding.
The Federal Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, highlighted overfunding of private schools last week:
If some schools under formulas that have been grandfathered for years and years are getting more than their fair share, then we ought to have a look at an adjustment process.
Labor shadow minister on education and deputy opposition leader, Tanya Plibersek, resorted to despicable political opportunism by calling on Birmingham to name the schools that would lose funding. She conspicuously refused to condemn overfunding of private schools. It was unprincipled ’wedge’ politics at its most loathsome.
Plibersek was re-affirming her endorsement of private school overfunding. In December, she said that there is no case to cut funding of overfunded elite private schools and redistribute the money to disadvantaged schools. Labor’s position on the overfunding of elite private schools is utterly astonishing and morally bankrupt. It has a craven fear of enraging wealthy private schools by challenging their privileged taxpayer funding that diverts millions from public schools most in need.
Several hundred private schools receive more funding than they are entitled to because the Labor Government allowed them to keep funding that they would have otherwise lost when the Gonski funding model was introduced in 2014. It amounted to $234 million in 2014, and over 70% goes to schools with around 50% or more of their students from high socio-economic status (SES) families.
Last September, Birmingham openly admitted that many private schools are overfunded and that some could have their funding reduced in future. He observed that this overfunding results from a special deal with private school organisations by the previous Labor Government. In contrast, he said that he had never promised that you can’t take money away from wealthier schools and that he had been very cautious not to give this promise.
Plibersek immediately accused him of having a “secret hit list” of private schools and robbing private schools of funding. [The Australian, 27 September 2016]. Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, accused the Turnbull Government of “going after non-government schools” and called on the Government “… to reassure non-government schools they are not about to get hit in the back of the head with a funding cut.”
As an editorial in The Age said at the time: “Labor’s approach has been contemptible”. It remains contemptible.
Continuing overfunding of private schools is longstanding Labor policy. Overfunding stems from the Howard Government’s “no losers” guarantee whereby schools got to keep funding they would have otherwise lost under the old SES funding model. The Labor Government could have terminated this overfunding when it set up the Gonski review. Instead, Julia Gillard instructed Gonski that no school would lose a dollar of funding. One of the Gonski Panel members, Ken Boston, has said that this edict was “the albatross around the neck of the Gonski Panel”.
Gillard also negotiated another special deal with the Catholic Church whereby the existing share of school funding received by Catholic schools would be maintained. This was subsequently extended to all private schools as revealed in Senate Estimates [Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment, Budget Estimates 2013-2014, Hansard, 5 June 2013, pp. 100, 127]. Under the deal, the funding share of public schools cannot increase, even though they enrol much higher proportions of disadvantaged students than private schools and the proportions are increasing.
Another special deal negotiated between the Labor Government and the Catholic Church allows block funding of Catholic school systems based on their system SES rather than the SES of each individual school as applies to Independent schools. In Senate Estimates last October, Birmingham admitted that this arrangement allows wealthy Catholic schools to be treated as if they are less wealthy for the purposes of their funding [Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment, Supplementary Budget Estimates, 2016-17, Hansard, 20 October, p.89]. Even the right-wing advocate of free markets, Senator James Paterson, expressed surprise that it contradicts the principle of needs-based funding: “It does not seem to make a lot of sense if the purpose is for equitable funding based on need”.
These special deals have corrupted the integrity and coherence of the Gonski funding model which was designed to make school funding solely needs-based. They provide privileged funding for many wealthy private schools.
For example, in NSW, Loreto Kirribilli received $8.4 million in government funding in 2014 (latest figures) even though 82% of its students are high SES and it has no low SES students. St Aloysius’ College received $8.4 million even though 92% of its students are high SES and it has no low SES students.
In Victoria, St. Kevin’s College received $11.4 million even though 79% of its students are high SES and only 1% low SES. Loreto Mandeville Hall, with 76% of its students high SES and 1% low SES, received $5.7 million. Haileybury College received $19.4 million even though 69% of its students are high SES and 2% are low SES.
Private school overfunding is a protected species for Labor just as it is for Tony Abbott. Abbott has boasted of the Liberal Party’s proud history of funding Independent and Catholic schools: “It’s in our DNA” [Sydney Morning Herald, 11 September 2012], “what you will never see from the Coalition are any changes in which individual schools are the losers” [Response to Gonski, Doorstop Interview, 7 March 2012].
Plibersek and Shorten are on a “unity ticket” with Abbott that no private school will ever lose any funding, despite many elite private schools with annual fees over $25,000 a year receiving millions in government funding. This is funding that would be far better spent on the many under-resourced public schools serving the most disadvantaged students in the country. But, for Labor – and Abbott – privilege trumps equity in education.
Trevor Cobbold is National Convenor, Save our Schools.