TREVOR COBBOLD. Labor is a Specialist in Special Deals for Private Schools.

Bill Shorten has committed Labor to standing “shoulder to shoulder” with the Catholic school system. He promised it $250 million over two years and billions more over a decade. Catholic Education Victoria reciprocated by campaigning on behalf of Labor in the Batman by-election. What a cosy deal! More money for Catholic schools in return for electoral favours!

Labor claims it is merely restoring funding cut from Catholic schools by the Turnbull Government. But, in fact, it is restoring massive over-funding created by the Howard Government’s socio-economic status (SES) funding model which Labor surreptitiously folded into its Gonski funding model.

When the Howard Government introduced its SES model for funding private schools in 2001, which the Catholic system joined in 2004, it gave a “no losers” guarantee. Schools whose funding exceeded their SES score entitlement were allowed to keep it. A confidential review by the Commonwealth Department of Education in 2006 estimated the over-funding at about $700 million a year.

According to the Gonski report, 1075 private schools were over-funded in 2011, including 890 Catholic systemic schools, 37 non-systemic Catholic schools and 148 Independent schools. These schools received $615 million in over-funding in 2010, with $492 million paid to Catholic schools and $123 million to Independent schools. All the over-funding went to medium and high SES schools and many high SES schools got more than double the funding they were entitled to.

The Gonski report was highly critical of this over-funding. However, it was shackled by Julia Gillard’s edict that “no school will lose a dollar of funding” under the new model. It meant that the over-funding had to be folded into the new model.

This presented a major dilemma for the Panel given its focus on needs-based funding. One of the Gonski Panel members, Ken Boston, later said the edict was “the albatross around the neck of the Gonski Panel”. In the event, it could only recommend that a funding schedule be set to ensure that all private schools got the equivalent level of government funding they received under the SES model, but which minimised the apparent over-funding.

The Labor Government managed the conflicting goals of needs-based funding and maintaining over-funding by manipulating the ‘capacity to pay’ funding schedules so that much of the over-funding simply disappeared from view. It created separate funding schedules for primary and secondary schools and set the primary funding rates substantially above the secondary rates across the SES score range that applied to most private schools.

The over-funding was further guaranteed by another special deal that Gillard concocted with the Catholic Church whereby the share of school funding currently received by Catholic schools would be maintained in the long term. The deal was then extended to Independent schools.

This effectively restored the link between private school funding and government school costs under the SES model which was heavily criticised by the Gonski report as contrary to the principle of needs-based funding. Instead of adopting the Gonski recommendation to dispense with the direct link, Labor replaced it a hidden indirect link. As a result, part of any increase in funding for under-resourced public schools continued to flow through to private schools.

Another special deal negotiated between the Labor Government and the Catholic Church allowed block funding of Catholic school systems based on their national average SES rather than the SES of each individual school as applies to Independent schools. As a result, medium and high SES Catholic schools were treated as less advantaged for funding purposes. This deal proved especially beneficial in the ACT where the SES score of every Catholic school was well above the national average.

Labor’s Gonski funding model magically reduced the apparent number of over-funded schools. Figures released by the Education Department in 2016 showed that about 150 high SES Catholic and Independent schools were over-funded according to the parameters of the Gonski model, far below the 1075 over-funded schools that were guaranteed to have their funding maintained in the new model.

The Gonski funding plan was a watershed. It implemented a needs-based funding formula and promised a large increase in funding for disadvantaged schools and students. However, it was flawed by special deals for Catholic and Independent schools which undermined the principle of needs-based funding and provided them with hundreds of millions in over-funding.

Labor has been defending these special deals ever since. When Simon Birmingham proposed ending what is gross over-funding of 150 or so high SES private schools within ten years, Labor resorted to political opportunism rather than providing bi-partisan support to end the over-funding. Tanya Plibersek accused Birmingham of robbing private schools and said there was no case to cut their over-funding and redistribute it to disadvantaged schools.

Labor also defended the gross over-funding of ACT Catholic schools. Shorten criticised the Coalition’s proposed cuts to over-funding because parents would have to pay more fees and Plibersek promised to restore any funding cut from the Catholic system. So much for equity principles!

Labor did oppose the Turnbull Government’s Gonski-lite funding model which cuts billions from what public schools would have received under the original Gonski model. However, its opposition to Birmingham’s proposal to end the gross over-funding of elite private schools sowed confusion everywhere and allowed the Government to sell Gonski-lite as a more consistent needs-based model.

The reality is that Gonski-lite provides the best special deal ever for private schools. Some two-thirds of Independent schools will be over-funded and Catholic schools will be assured of at least adequate funding. In contrast, public schools will remain massively under-funded unless state governments dramatically increase their funding effort and there is certainly no guarantee of this given their past performance in cutting funding.

Labor rightly promises to restore the funding cut from public schools. However, restoration of the funding cut from Catholic and Independent schools includes hundreds of millions in over-funding. Labor should go back to the drawing board on this. What is needed is a Gonski PLUS model that builds on the principles of the original Gonski plan for a nationally integrated fully needs-based funding system without any special deals for Catholic and Independent schools.

Trevor Cobbold is National Convenor of Save Our Schools

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