I have a great idea to fix the drought. Give farmers drought relief, extend it to better-endowed areas with access to water – and continue it long after the rain returns. The farmers I know would be horrified if this happened. But when it comes to school funding the Catholic bishops have no such shame. Every time we roll out needs-based funding we alter it to keep everyone happy and continue it for so long it becomes a permanent part of the school landscape.
Developments since last year have followed much the same script ever since needs-based school funding started to bit the dust in the Whitlam years. In the last two decades both the Howard and Gillard governments went through the motions of needs-based funding, while feather-bedding the non-government sector.
Following the recent by-elections – and almost before the tumult and shouting has died down – another government in another era has apparently lent a willing ear to the dubious claims of the Catholic bishops. According to The Australian, PM Turnbull’s willingness to listen has been hurried along by last weekend’s tilt by the bishops to influence the voters. It raises a host of questions, even if no one actually asks who paid for their latest electoral foray.
The enduring myth about the funding sought by the bishops is that it is needed to make up the shortfall created by the Turnbull Government’s otherwise feeble attempt to improve equity and reduce the impact of previous special deals. But in the eyes of the bishops, yesterday’s special deals have become today’s and tomorrow’s fixture. Hence words like ‘loss’, ‘restoration’ and ‘short changed’ are thrown around in an attempt to make a case.
There will always be winners and losers if governments are serious about equity funding. Public school peak groups don’t want to wait for a decade to see greater equity. The Independents are going to lose (and the Catholics gain) if funding needs are calculated – as they should be – around parental incomes. And funding should always be adjusted – including being reduced – as the circumstance of schools change. Welcome to the real world.
The Catholic schools will get what they want. Labor threw in the towel decades ago; it is surprising that education minister Birmingham has held the line for as long as he has – especially in the face of claims about school fees rising and the possible closure of up to 350 Catholic schools. It seems like Goulburn 1962 all over again.
But both sides of politics need to realise that the context in which this all plays out has considerably changed. In recurrent funding terms Catholic schools in Australia are already government schools. Most are funded at well over 90% of the public funding going to government schools. Independent schools are fast catching up. Many could be closed with governments ending up financially ahead. The Australian countryside is littered with tiny Catholic schools that are extremely expensive, regardless of who pays.
But none of this will feature in the ongoing jockeying around school funding. The actors come and go but script for how it will play out has been around for a long time.
Chris Bonnor is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development.