NSW needs a government prepared to bell the cat when it comes to the ongoing provision of public funding to grossly over-resourced private schools. Funds provided on the grounds of assumed entitlement are funds diverted from distribution according to demonstrated need.
Political pressure forced the Whitlam government to include high-fee, high-resource schools in its 1970s schools funding revolution. Since that time, by accommodating public funding of these schools, both levels of government have undermined the integrity of subsequent attempts to establish needs-based funding arrangements.
Given the current political, social and financial circumstances confronting the state of NSW, the run-up to the March election provides an ideal time to ask the following question for which, to the best of my knowledge, a plausible answer has yet to be provided.
From the perspective of education rather than politics, what is the justification for the NSW government to provide public funding to those schools which already have sufficient private income to provide their students with a level of resources well above the legislated Schooling Resource Standard (SRS)?
As it heads towards the election, the current NSW government is directly responsible for its own aberrant over-funding of such schools along with its under-funding of public schools. The fact that this is broadly consistent with the behaviour of governments nationally does not absolve NSW of its responsibility to take some actions towards a more coherent, rational, democratic school system as a whole.
The very least a NSW government could do is to remove taxpayer grants from schools where private income from fees and parent contributions alone add up to twice (or more) the amount of their base resource standard.
This action does not risk damage to the education of the students in these schools. At worst, it could cause the school operators a minor, temporary inconvenience. After all, any such schools which are unable to provide a decent education for the students they enroll with this level of private income should have their registration withdrawn by government on the grounds of incompetence.
Whatever personal opinions readers may have about ‘exclusive’ schools, there can be no question that it is governments that set the criteria for their registration and operation. Whatever the schools’ admission criteria, the level of private fees they charge, their employment practices, the extravagance of their buildings and facilities and validity of the claims of their own achievements, these schools are operating within a framework set by governments.
It is governments which bear responsibility for enabling our cultural diversity, our religious, ethnic and other social traditions and loyalties to find their expression through a class-stratified school system where choice and competition are driven by gross resource discrepancies among schools. It is governments which have enabled disparity to parade as diversity.
What seems to have been forgotten is that schooling is one of the foundations of a thriving democracy. Universal schooling is the formal process for supporting all citizens to develop their capacity for making the collective informed and rational decisions on which democracy depends, as well as personal decisions about their own lives. All schools in Australia are contributing to the operation of this essential service and all taxpayers contribute to the public investment in schools.
The Commonwealth has made the funding of non-government schools its top budget priority in relation to education and training, spending over $15 billion annually on non-government schools, compared with the $10.6 billion it currently spends on the nation’s universities.
The sheer scale of this level of subvention of private schools by the national government has had the effect of obscuring the fact that there is more at stake here than the issue of funding.
It has also distracted attention from the reality that in our federal system it is the states which are responsible for the provision of schooling.
It is the responsibility of the NSW government to ensure that a school place (or an appropriate equivalent) is available for every child in the state. The government carries out this responsibility through its direct provision of public schools or through licensing non-government schools.
The state government has a responsibility to ensure that there are measures in place to protect the interests of students enrolled in schools in both sectors; and to protect the public interest in the operation of schools generally.
There are useful parallels here between the transport system and the school system. In both systems the existence of private provision predates the introduction of public transport and public schooling.
In the transport system, however, the rules for all users are far clearer than they are in the school system. The same road rules apply to those who decide to spend their own money on buying a Porsche as to other users. Priority in the transport system is given to public transport. Trains do not stop to allow your Porsche to cross the rail line at level crossings. Users of public transport include both those who cannot afford the private alternative and those who have a choice, but who make the decision to use public transport in the public interest – for environmental reasons, for example. There is a parallel in the school system. The public school system includes students whose parents have no choice of an alternative; and those who have the choice but decide to send their children to public schools for social and educational reasons.
In our hybrid school system, however, it seems that the payment by parents of any level of private fees leads state governments to excuse private schools from responsibility, for example, for the demographic planning needed to maintain a reasonable balance between the supply of and demand for school places. Private schools are left free by governments to chop and change their enrolment criteria depending upon their own interests and regardless of the effects on neighbouring schools.
The public funding of these schools has a significance of its own. By adding public money to high-fee, high-resource schools governments valorise their operation, implying that some children deserve a better education than others, and creating a perception that schools with fewer resources offer an inferior education.
Withdrawing their public funding would not solve the problem of equity. It would be difficult for a democratic government to prevent high-income parents from paying privately for their own children to have more lavishly resourced schools than most of their peers. Or to prohibit these private providers from using their buying power to pay higher salaries to lure the most qualified and experienced teachers from other schools, to undertake costly marketing campaigns and to offer scholarships to students able to add lustre to their education performance.
Governments do, however, have the power to require greater transparency in relation to the private funding of schools. What happens in schools affects the wider society, and the sources of all private funding in all schools, both public and private is a matter of legitimate public interest. There is clearly a need to safeguard the school system against individuals or groups, domestic or international, seeking to use schools for their own purposes. For example, the school system is a potentially rich source of data and it is in the national interest to ensure that it is not being mined by unscrupulous operators for their own profit. And governments should require full disclosure of all aspects of the financial operation of private schools as a condition of registration, including the salaries of school staff and the sources of income held by their trusts and foundations and any related entities.
In the context of a significant teacher shortage in NSW, a governor of an exclusive private girls school sent out a letter informing parents of a fee rise. The letter explained that “the employment market in the education sector had tightened significantly”. It went on to describe the school’s response. This was “to conduct benchmarking reviews to ensure that staff remuneration remains fair and competitive, and that we continue to be the school of choice for the highest calibre of staff dedicated to exceeding expectations”.
Stripped of its euphemism, this letter informed parents that there is a serious teacher shortage in NSW and that they should pay higher fees to ensure that the school could continue to use its superior resources to attract teachers at the expense of students in other schools, including those schools with far fewer resources and with students with more intensive needs for those teachers.
It is difficult to think of any other country where governments would not only add taxpayer funding to assist this private school to preserve its privilege, but would actually register it and others like it as a charity!