CHRIS BONNOR. The ABC of school funding

Years ago the late Bernie Shepherd and I began wading through a mountain of My School data about schools. We soon discovered that the public funding of private schools was growing so rapidly that they would soon get more money from governments than was going to similar public schools. So we published our early findings which, along with our motives, were met with denials and accusations by the Catholic and Independent school peak groups. Fast forward four years and the ABC News has just produced an up-to-date and more sophisticated analysis for all to see. The situation has worsened; this issue won’t go away.

Much has been written about school funding, where it has gone wrong and why it matters. But the policy dilemmas exposed by equal or even near-equivalent public funding of private schools raises a host of questions which have been avoided for years.

The avoidance hasn’t been very hard: Private school peak groups just keep trotting out the figures which show that, on average, the public funding of private schools still falls well short. But that strategy won’t work this time around. It’s far more widely known that public schools enrol the vast majority of high-cost students. Julia Gillard can almost be forgiven for the My School website because it readily shows this in almost every community. Averages mean very little.

As the ABC tells it:

“Average figures tell us Catholic school students receive 84 cents for every taxpayer dollar spent on public school students and independent school students receive 69 cents. But averages, which lump together vastly different kinds of schools, reveal only a fraction of the story.

So when we go beyond the ‘average’ story it looks very different. Again from the ABC:

“In 2016, 35 per cent of Australia’s private schools received more public funding than the typical similar public school, up from 5 per cent in 2009. Most were low-fee Catholic schools. We’ve defined “typical” as the median, which means the private school received more public funding than half of similar public schools. This is a conservative way of looking at it. If we look at the percentage of private schools receiving more public funding than any similar public school, that figure is 85 per cent, up from 58 per cent in 2009.

Clearly, the mask of averages, as one colleague describes it, is well past its use-by date. So where do private school advocacy groups go now? They can’t rewrite history. They can’t justify the special deals made in the past, but we certainly should reverse the new deals currently being made. They can’t airbrush away the flawed logic in the idea that if public funding went up fees would go down. They can no longer pretend that the different school sectors are carrying an equal load of our more needy and challenging young people. They can’t back out by saying that their schools save public funding; such savings disappear, year by year, as the funding goes up.

Just like the My School website itself, the ABC’s analysis allows anyone to check out the figures for themselves, but this time around it is much easier. Just go to the site, type in the name of your school and up comes the school’s public funding levels, along with the public funding of schools enrolling similar students. Then do the same for total funding. It saves all that trawling through My School.

It is important to note that some of the funding differences between schools can be attributed to factors not measured by My School, and differences between similar schools in the same sector will still emerge. If these are substantial it is beholden on school authorities to explain why and adjust any larger funding anomalies that may exist. But that nowhere near negates the validity of broad comparisons. Nor can it explain or justify why schools in sectors with very different obligations should be anywhere near funded at similar levels.

So all the avoided questions are still waiting for answers. Why should private schools get anywhere near current funding when they are not available to every student from every family in every location under every circumstance? Will governments – and oppositions – finally acknowledge that the playing field, on which schools are supposed to compete, need to be urgently levelled? How absurd do our current arrangements, almost unique in the world, have to be before we reform a framework of schools that doesn’t deliver.

One thing is certain: in the past the discourse about school funding could be manipulated due to limited information and by misrepresentation of what information we had. Those days are long gone and both governments and school authorities will be increasingly held to account.

Chris Bonnor AM is co-author, with Jane Caro, of The Stupid Country and What makes a good school.

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Chris Bonnor is an education researcher and writer.

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