Rich school, poor school

Aug 14, 2019

This week the ABC kicked open the door to an overdue debate about school funding – a debate claimed to have been settled by Malcolm Turnbull two years ago. In a stunning interactive report on its website, Inga Ting and her team at the ABC unpacked and presented a disturbing picture of the capital funding of schools. Even if you aren’t infected by the politics of envy, just running your cursor down the list of schools might make you pause. Half of the $22 billion spend on capital projects in Australian schools between 2013 and 2017 was spent in just 10 percent of schools.

This revelation follows their previous and equally graphic presentation late last year of the bizarre features of the recurrent public funding of schools. That report showed, in funding terms, that most private schools have become public, something that became very apparent over three years ago. This time around it is capital funding under the microscope. The problems are the same: little or no effective coordination between state and federal governments, the states locked into cyclical election promises to the private sector, and relentless and less-than-honest advocacy by the private school peak groups.

For large numbers of private schools their annual capital funding exceeds their recurrent funding from governments. In the words of Barry McGaw, “you can see that they are receiving much more money than they need to spend on their recurrent operations – as evidenced by the fact that they can pass [so much money] out to capital works”

The responses to the ABC’s findings from the private sector groups are predictable, but miss the point. They are indeed accountable for their public funding, but many readers may wonder why they get it in the first place. They argue that most of their capital spending is funded privately, mostly by fees and school loans. But as several people said in the report, public funding frees up their privately-sourced income to be spent as they wish. In this way public funding absolutely contributes to the private school capital expenditure binge.

The Independent Schools Council reminds us, “due to the shared view of successive Australian governments …each non-government school child is entitled to a government contribution to the cost of their education.” What we can’t be certain about is whether this “shared view” supports public recurrent funding increasing at twice the rate to private schools when compared with increases to public schools. Perhaps the extent to which this view is really shared should be put to a referendum or a mere postal ballot? Certainly there are few if any private schools in equivalent countries overseas which get any funding at all.

There is much more to come out about the funding of our schools, both public and private. Long-treasured myths – such as how this funding represents a saving on the public purse – can now be seriously challenged. We constantly hear that students in private schools get between 50 and 70% of the government funding going to those in public schools. Research currently under way points to the real figure being much closer to 100%, and sometimes more. The oft-claimed annual saving to the public purse of around $7 billion might be half a billion, if it exists at all. Indeed, if all the students funded to attend private schools since 2011 had instead attended public schools, governments would have pocketed over $100 million in recurrent funding costs each year. As for capital funding, the claimed savings created by students attending private schools would have been one-third the amounts claimed by private school peak groups.

And of course, last but not least, that symbolic status of Goulburn in the opening years of the state aid debate is under continuing challenge. If Goulburn’s Catholic schools had to shut their doors today the recurrent funding gain to governments would be $1 223 612. Maybe the bishops should try that stunt again!

The reality is that we know more and more about school funding than ever before. It gets harder and harder to defend the indefensible. The ABC report has made an invaluable contribution to a better debate.

Chris Bonnor is co-author with Jane Caro of What makes a good school

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