CHRIS BONNOR. This virus might lead to education reform.

Apr 13, 2020

Education reform is well overdue. As the need to act with speed has seen governments jettison rusted-on assumptions and ideologies in areas such as employment, health and welfare – can school education be next? After all, there are just as many education problems sitting in the too-hard basket, many of them extremely wicked and ignored by governments for decades.

The Prime Minister recently had to confront one of these problems. He wanted to keep schools open, but many of the private ones instead started closing down. They did it because they can: unlike government schools they don’t have a charter of public obligations to match the funding they receive. The prime minister could only threaten, reminding the sector “that in this situation there were certain expectations attached to the recurrent funding provided by the Australian Government to Catholic and independent schools”.

Fast forward two weeks and the Prime Minister’s courage has infected his education minister. As The Guardian reported, Dan Tehan on Thursday ordered independent schools to reopen to provide in-person education for children whose parents want it in term two. Not only that, he also threatened their funding, stating that the Australian Education Act, 2013, “does provide me with the authority to include an additional condition/s if I consider the conditions to be in the public interest.”

Apparently the schools didn’t believe the threat the first time around, because with clumsy timing they put their hand out for more government financial support – bolstering their case with questionable claims. They talked about their parents in need, families which – as ABS data shows – are increasingly better off than their public school counterparts. A Catholic system head claimed that her schools showed a “preferential option for the poor”, something that even the bishops doubted a decade ago. And of course they highlighted the recurrent cost to governments if their students had to enrol in government schools – a claim which funding increases have somewhat turned into an urban myth.

It would be surprising if the government acceded to their request. The government has wrestled competently with policy reversals, contradictions and dilemmas – but giving more funding, without conditions, to this less-than-worthy cause would be controversial. At the very least it would be hard to explain to those currently doing it really tough.

But the recent focus on the conditions attached to funding opens the door to new possibilities. What if a one-off supplementary grant was given to both the public and private sectors, subject to certain conditions? In both sectors it might help equip families for the online learning that will be around long after the virus fades from view. But it is the conditions that really matter – and these should include an iron-clad commitment on the part of all sectors to restructure in the face of another unfolding but far less dramatic school crisis.

It is a quiet and incremental crisis.  Our system of public and private schools is riddled with inequities, inefficiencies and inequalities – while becoming increasingly segregated in multiple ways. Governments spend more than they should because there is so much duplication of facilities and services. In just about every community, schools exist and compete with each other on an absurdly uneven playing field. Despite the scale and equivalence of government funding to both school sectors, there is no equivalent obligation regarding which families they serve. All this is accompanied by mediocre achievement!

There will be many changes on the other side of COVID-19. Why should schools be exempt? As Dean Ashenden explains in more detail, a better school future could include a binding common charter of rights and obligations, a commitment to core principles and objectives which would include no fees, the obligation to reduce within-school segregation, and full transparency as to performance and compliance. And a new funding system that would serve these purposes.

It’s hardly a new idea. Most countries have an arrangement under which all schools receiving public funding must accept, and operate under, such arrangements. As Tom Greenwell reports, it goes a long way to explaining why Canada’s schools outperform ours. We are the odd ones out and it is playing havoc with our schools, creating a hierarchical system which achieves neither excellence nor equity. It wouldn’t be easy, it never is. We would have to sort out federal/state relations, sources of funding, school diversity and enrolment selection, the place of faith education, relations between the sectors, capital funding, monitoring and accountability – to name just a few.

If not now, then when? Such decisions will never be made in ‘normal’ circumstances. The last three weeks have seen the unthinkable find its way onto urgent agendas and emerge in creative thinking and action. The current grab by one of the school sectors for more of the public purse has created an opportunity. It could and should force the door open to something more equitable, more successful and sustainable for the longer term.

Chris Bonnor is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. Thanks to Dean Ashenden for assistance in the preparation of this article.

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