CHRIS BONNOR. School funding ‘overs’ and ‘unders’

 

Last week was one to remember: one school funding revelation after another.

It began the previous Friday at the Education Minister’s COAG gathering in Adelaide. One big problem, as Bernie Shepherd and I pointed out, was that the gathering wouldn’t begin to tackle the hard issues. They walked out at the end of the day, agreeing … on the need to walk back in at a later date.

The next event was Q&A last Monday night, a forum where it isn’t easy to duck hard issues. To cut a long story short, the well-briefed Tony Jones pressed two issues with Federal Minister. Simon Birmingham acknowledged that some private schools were over-funded – and also said he was very open to the idea of a schools’ resourcing body to oversight funding. It has been this lack of oversight that has substantially created our current impasse.

Of course, Q&A is a wonderful forum for generating headlines and I’m torn over whether the Minister has had a road to Damascus experience – or whether his concessions are part of a larger game plan. To date the plan is to advocate going ‘beyond’ Gonski, to distract from the funding cuts. Some redistribution of funding might be a distracting concession, albeit a risky one. Tanya Plibersek wasted no time in accusing the government of planning a hit-list of schools which would lose funding. Stunts like that know no political boundary.

Maybe on redistribution the minister had nowhere else to go: information on over-funded schools was about to become public. Such a revelation was certainly inevitable: from day one Labor placed a time-bomb in Gonski’s drive to improve equity. No school was to lose a dollar. This meant that any new funding would be better distributed to everyone – but without any losers. The no-losers then sailed on to become embarrassingly big winners.

The same thing happened a decade earlier under Howard Government funding. ‘Twas ever thus – and maybe ‘twill ever be!

So a familiar ritual played out last week. The non-gov sectors screamed before they were hit, claiming victim status or raising distractions. They’ll be saying a lot more behind closed doors. Others watched with amazement as Fairfax media rolled out the federal Department of Education data on over-funded schools. Many would have read the Herald Editorial which basically said: go back and do Gonski.

What was missing last week was any nuanced view of what constitutes over-funding, both within and between sectors. As Bernie Shepherd and I have reported, over-funding has emerged in a number of forms over the last few years. Catholic schools have long been publicly-funded ahead of similar Independent schools, an arrangement devoid of any logical explanation. That’s over-funding.

The federal Minister claims that non-government schools only get 60% of the funding which goes to government schools. If there was a competition for half-truths the Minister’s statement would be in the grand final. When similar schools are compared this 60% figure rises to anything between 80% and 105%. In the light of their lesser set of obligations and accountabilities on an uneven playing field, this amounts to over-funding. Catholic schools especially are getting both the money and the box.

Such revelations easily get swept aside. Amanda Vanstone on Q&A claimed that “if every parent took their kid out of private schools and went into public schools, the education bill would soar.” That bill has long been touted to be around $9 billion. But private school funding is now so high that the real figure is around 10-15% of this amount. In reality it would be much less – or a saving – for two reasons, firstly the students wouldn’t all shift into public schools and secondly, governments wouldn’t over-invest to the same extent in advantaged students.

If we see the purpose of funding as raising student achievement, then over-funding is rife. Students in high-fee schools are funded – from all sources it is important to add – at around three times the level of equally advantaged students in government schools. But there is no student achievement gain; they all get much the same results. The government portion of this funding may not be as large but it is in no way a well-targeted investment.

Public schools and systems display many funding anomalies created just by accidents of geography. In Institutionalised Inequality we demonstrate the differences between the schools on either side of the border in Albury-Wodonga. The Victorian primary school enrolls more of the strugglers but receives 20% less funding per student than does the nearby NSW school. There is no shortage of similar examples across Australia.

It’s a mess, but of course it’s everyone’s mess. It’s too early to know where and why Simon Birmingham is going with his deviation from the Coalition narrative. Maybe the time has really come when the evidence just can’t be ignored any more. One can only hope.

Chris Bonnor AM is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development.

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