Blessed are the rich … Catholic schools

The ABC news report ‘How the Catholic school system takes from the poor to give to the rich’ is a significant and telling revelation of how Catholic school authorities have used public funding to play rich favourites among their schools. This unacceptable practice has been long standing and far reaching.

The ABC story reveals that millions of dollars in public funding have been diverted from poorer to richer Catholic primary schools. The purpose of this diversion, approved by Catholic bishops in New South Wales, is to keep fees low for families in wealthier areas. In reality, as indicated by respected education policy consultant Peter Goss, it “is designed to avoid the goal of public policy: that parents who choose non-government schools should pay in line with their income”. The ABC report indicates that the practice is not confined to NSW.

Nor is it new, and reports of it just keep coming. Catholic system heads and the bishops have fought long and hard to keep control of the distribution of public funding within their system, but their track record in doing this is badly flawed. As Trevor Cobbold reports, a 2009 audit found that Catholic system allocations of Australian government funding saw students in low SES schools getting less than they would if their schools were directly funded. At least three other reports have indicated the same thing.

The reality stands at odds with the rhetoric. In his autobiography A Bigger Picture, Malcolm Turnbull recounts how “over the years Catholic bishops like George Pell had always insisted the virtue of funding the Catholic schools in one lump sum, as a system, was that they could cross-subsidise the poorer schools at the expense of those in the wealthier suburbs”.

But it seems that all this time, any cross-subsidising has been running in the reverse direction. Turnbull reports on a revealing conversation with the Archbishop of Sydney, in which Anthony Fisher argued that schools in his (Turnbull’s) Wentworth electorate were needier because the parents had bigger mortgages. That’s a novel take on need and equity.

Audits and personal accounts come and go, but it was never possible to hide what was looking like a subsidy of the rich. The highly regarded Brian Croke, who headed up the Catholic Education Commission for years, said that the inconsistencies between the government’s needs-based allocations and the Catholic system’s distribution formula became more obvious over time.  This time around, Catholic school authorities have been condemned by their own hand, by the smoking gun of their own internal analyses and proposals, presentations and emails and more, prepared for the 11 bishops of NSW and diocesan offices.

So why have Catholic systems, at great risk to their reputations and to their oft-stated concern for the poor, continued a highly questionable ‘reverse Robin Hood’ practice of shifting resources from the needy to the better-endowed? Commentary points to a number of lame justifications and problems facing the Catholic school system. The ABC report quotes the chief executive of Catholic Schools NSW as saying “the aim is to make the low fee offering as ubiquitous as we possibly can right across NSW”. It’s a long stretch, if that was the intention, to suggest that ubiquitous equates with equity. He also defended the model, saying the amount of money redistributed was a “tiny fraction” of the total funding pool. It’s not hard to imagine the consequences if that logic had been trotted out in relation to child protection.

Apparently one aim is to enable schools in better off areas to compete with government and Independent schools. One document cited in the ABC report indicates how Catholic schools in Sydney “compete closely with government schools and fee levels must be sensitive to this” – in other words, keep fees low and, as it happens, subsidized by the parents of poorer Catholic schools. Is it working? The share of school enrolments held by Catholic schools has continued to fall. It isn’t certain which students are enrolling elsewhere but data from the My School website might provide a clue. Between 2011 and 2018 Catholic school enrolments were increasingly made up of students from the most advantaged families. The Catholic school share of students from the least advantaged families fell over this same period. These trends were more marked than similar trends evident for Independent schools. It suggests that the policy of subsidising higher SES schools could help explain a shift in the socio-educational composition of Catholic school enrolments.

Private schools and systems frequently talk about how they support the poor, claims that are easy to challenge in this data-rich era. Surprisingly though, Cardinal Pell once lamented that Catholic schools “don’t have as many poor Catholics in our schools as I would like” – a confession that now sits oddly alongside funding policies that for years have made it harder for the poor to access Catholic schools. To be fair, this is despite the very real efforts at the school level to support many who cannot pay fees. And the National Catholic Education Commission does say that the distinctiveness of Catholic schools includes “giving priority to educating the spiritually and financially poor”.

There is no better time than now to ensure that the distribution of public funding reflects such a priority.

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Chris Bonnor is an education researcher and writer.

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