FRANK BRENNAN. Gonski in An Age of Budget Repair

May 26, 2017

School funding is a very complex issue in Australia. It’s now a poisonous political cocktail. David Gonski who had been the poster boy for Julia Gillard’s bold education reforms has now been showcased by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Education Minister Simon Birmingham announcing their new deal for school funding.  

The National Catholic Education Commission, the Australian Catholic Primary Principals Association, and the Catholic Secondary Principals Association are upset with the proposed funding arrangements. This has prompted the Catholic Cabinet Minister Christopher Pyne to claim that ‘the Catholic education system really is running a very dishonest campaign’. The Catholic system educates 20% of Australia’s school children in 1,737 schools.

Meanwhile Labor’s Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek has highlighted that the schools to be most adversely affected by the funding changes are the Northern Territory government schools. She has called the Greens ‘morons’ for contemplating support for the changes. Even for Canberra, this debate has gone more pear shaped than most.

The level of consultation prior to the announced changes was appalling. But that is now water under the bridge. It’s time to enunciate some clear principles. And it’s time for respectful consultations to take place investigating how those principles can be best applied. This must be done within the realistic political environment where the present government is committed to delivering much less for school education than is Labor, and in the name of ‘Budget repair’.

On the government’s own figures, they would deliver $6.3 billion less to schools in the next four years and $22.3 billion less in the next ten years than would Labor. The issue of school funding as a budget priority and as an item of ‘Budget repair’ is now a key election issue.

The Catholic Bishops Commission for Catholic Education has stated, ‘As bishops, we acknowledge the difficult financial situation currently faced by the Government and the nation.’ While the Coalition is in government, the question is whether the available pot of money (smaller though it be) is to be equitably distributed with a proper weighting for the poor and needy, and an appropriate loading for those non-government schools whose parents cannot afford the fees of the flasher independent schools.

The government says that it is time for the Commonwealth’s direct contribution to school funding to be principled and transparent, ‘sector-blind’ and needs based. Following Gonski’s original recommendation to the Gillard government, the Turnbull government is adopting a school resourcing standard (SRS) which is based on the cost of delivering a good education to every child.

This standard includes a base amount payable to all students which is then discounted by the school community’s capacity to contribute. So, in a sense, the Commonwealth government’s contribution to the school resourcing standard is means tested. There is then a top-up for disadvantage. The disadvantage test includes a consideration of six factors: indigeneity, disability, low English proficiency, socio-educational disadvantage, rural and remote location, and school size.

The top-up is not means tested. The top-up does not consider all categories of disadvantage. For example, there is no additional payment to schools which take in students whose parents are asylum seekers with limited work and welfare rights. Peter Goss from the Grattan Institute who is generally supportive of the Turnbull-Birmingham reforms says, ‘The details of the SRS formula should be reviewed, since there are flaws and the original analysis was done with too little evidence.’

The core principles are basically sound. But then it must be noted that these principles are being applied by the Commonwealth only to itself and not to the states and territories. By 2027, the Commonwealth will fund all schools on the same basis with the Commonwealth providing 20% of the funding standard for state schools which are largely funded by the states and territories, and the Commonwealth providing 80% of the funding standard for the non-government sector which receives much less support from the states and territories, being more dependent on parents’ fees.

Over the next ten years it is expected that 41.6% of Commonwealth funding will go to the government sector, and 58.4% to the non-government sector.

The Turnbull government insists that the time for special deals with each state and with each sector has past, and that there is a need for the Commonwealth to apply the same principled criteria for funding in a transparent manner. Turnbull has no interest in maintaining the 27 separate arrangements negotiated by Gillard. And he has abandoned Gillard’s restrictive precondition on Gonski that no school be left worse off.

The government concedes that the termination of the past special, negotiated arrangements will occasion some grief, particularly with low fee paying Catholic primary schools having to raise fees. They are providing a very modest $40 million as an ‘adjustment assistance’ package. There may well be a case for increasing the size of that package given that there will be 620 schools facing a real funding cut in the next financial year, 180 of which will still be losers in 10 years time.

When it comes to the application of the principles, the Catholic educators are stating two sound principled objections. The Australian Bureau of Statistics assessment of the socio-economic score (SES) is very inaccurate as it draws on clusters of households averaging income and education. Also, the government is wanting to abandon the student weighted system average SES.

The Catholics point out that especially with low fee paying primary schools, the parent base, even in better-off suburbs, includes families who can ill afford to pay high fees. Any significant jump in fees will result in many of those families simply shifting their children to government schools which will then be bursting at the seams. Some of these Catholic primary schools are being expected to increase their fees radically in the next few years because the increased Commonwealth revenue stream will not come on line for another four years.

The second objection is that the application of the principles results in the very wealthy being treated the same as those on moderately comfortable incomes. When it comes to mean testing the schools resourcing standard, the government model treats all families earning over $156,000 the same. The Catholic Education Commission of Victoria claims that most better off families in Catholic schools have incomes less than $182,000 but that 40% of those in independent schools have incomes greater than $260,000.

The third objection is that after the first four years, the indexation of the Commonwealth funding formula changes with the result that teachers’ wages in the non-government sector might remain depressed for a decade while wages in the government sector increase.

These objections need to be considered on their merits. They do not derogate from the principled criteria the government has enunciated. But they do imperil the government’s high moral rhetoric in the application of the principles. The Catholic bishops have said, ‘We are not asking for any special deals’. They are seeking viability for the system of Catholic schools, a fair go for parents in those schools, and rightful autonomy for the school system administrators. Everyone agrees that any changes need to be ‘sector blind’. The Shadow Minister Tanya Plibersek says the model ‘cannot be sector blind when it entrenches different funding levels for government and non-government schools, and it cannot be needs based when thousands of public schools and parish Catholic schools lose funding and some of the wealthiest schools in the country get a funding increase.’

The Commonwealth has agreed that the states and independent schools systems like the Catholic system will retain their own independence. The states will determine for themselves how to allocate their education funds. And the Catholics will continue to receive their Commonwealth payments in block, rather than the payments being made direct to each individual school. Minister Birmingham has said: ‘We support and respect the integrity of school systems… to be able to make more granular and detailed decisions about funding and support for each of their schools’. He says, ‘I respect the autonomy of Catholic education systems to take the pool of federal funding they receive which we are simply proposing they will receive based on the need of each of their individual schools.’

In the second reading debate on the Australian Education Amendment Bill , Tanya Plibersek pointed out:

The Northern Territory, with the nation’s most disadvantaged schools system, gets the smallest increases—not even enough to cover inflation. Take Anula Primary School in suburban Darwin. Twenty-two per cent of its students are Indigenous and around half of the students have a language background other than English. By 2027 this school will get about $4,232 per child from the Commonwealth government. That is an increase of just $554 over 10 years. Ten years! 

Compare that with Trinity Grammar School in Sydney, with fees of up to $24,000 a year for primary school children. That will receive $7,799 per student, which is an increase of $2,734 per student over the same time period. Trinity Grammar has great resources. It has a low-need student population. How does it get an increase in funding from the Commonwealth government that is five times larger than a public school in suburban Darwin? In what way is this needs based funding? How can those opposite claim that this is fair with straight faces? 

There is clearly a need for the government to revise the application of the laudable Gonski principles ensuring that every Australian child has a fair go at accessing a good education, within the funding constraints of the government of the day committed to ‘Budget repair’. For our part, we Catholics should ensure that our schools are more available to the poor, enacting Pope Francis’s desire: ‘I want a Church which is poor and for the poor.’

Fr Frank Brennan SJ is CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.  This article first appeared in Eureka Street on 23 May 2017.

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