LYNDSAY CONNORS. Schools Funding: unearthing the facts

May 30, 2017

The objections raised by Catholic leaders to the Turnbull Government’s Gonski 2.0 funding model raise as many questions about the governance and operation of the Catholic school system as about Gonski 2.0. One of these questions is: who pays for the teachers in Catholic schools? 

The re-emergence of political debate about the public funding of schools has produced surprising twists and turns over the last several weeks.

But none has been more surprising than the fact that Catholic leaders would choose to use teacher salaries as the grounds on which to spread panic in the Catholic school community and to exert political pressure on governments.

It is surprising because, while Catholic authorities employ the teachers in their schools, they do not foot their salary bill.

Whether or not this is how the funds received from government are represented in the internal accounting methods of Catholic education systems, the fact is that taxpayers now foot the bill for staffing Catholic schools through their governments, Commonwealth and state. 

The latest publicly available figures are for 2015. These are derived from figures available through the My School data base, the 2013 National Report on Schooling and the 2015 annual report of the National Catholic Education Commission. These reveal the following facts: 

  • In 2015 there were 51,995 teachers in Catholic schools
    • The estimated expenditure on teacher salaries in Catholic schools was around $5.2b
  • Governments provided total recurrent grants for these schools of $7.4 billion
    • Commonwealth recurrent grants to Catholic schools amounted to around $5.7b
    • The states provided a further $1.7b.
  • In 2015, there were 20,620 non-teaching staff in Catholic schools
    • Expenditure on these amounted to around $1.4b.
  • The truth is that the level of public recurrent funding now being provided by the Commonwealth alone is more than is needed by Catholic school authorities to pay their teachers. And the combined recurrent grants received from both levels of government more than covers the total staffing costs of these schools, teaching and non-teaching.

The fact that government grants to the private school sector now well exceed that sector’s total expenditure on teachers has been known but has not been publicised either by governments or by non-government (including Catholic) school authorities.

Catholic leaders and school authorities are not alone in raising objections to aspects of the Turnbull Government’s funding plan, Gonski 2.0. In his article confirming that that school funding is a very complex issue in Australia and that it is now a ‘poisonous cocktail’, Frank Brennan has rightly argued that their particular objections need to be considered on their merits.

One of these objections 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’.

It is hard to find any merit in this tenuous suggestion.

There had already been an announcement in the 2016 Budget that indexation would be set by the Commonwealth at a rate of 3.56 per cent. The Turnbull Government has subsequently announced that this ‘deemed’ rate will be maintained for the school years 2018 to 2020, prior to the adoption of a more conventional and principled ‘floating’ index, heavily weighted by movements in teacher salaries in government schools. This makes it difficult to find any basis for the above hypothetical objection.

What were the facts on which the director of Catholic education in Canberra, Ross Fox, based his the claims that the Turnbull Government’s Gonski 2.0 funding model means ‘there’s not a single dollar to fund pay increases for the dedicated teachers in our schools, not a single dollar to fund pay increases for the dedicated staff in our schools, for the dedicated principals in our schools’?

Objections to Gonski 2.0 need to be considered in the light of facts – the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And arguments need to be grounded in logic.

There is a responsibility upon all who engage in public debate about, or who have responsibility for, schools funding to be mindful here that we are speaking about the education of children and young people. The circumstances that have led to children attending a range of vastly different schools across this country are never of their own making. In making schools funding a ‘poisonous cocktail’, we are doing our young people no favours and are damaging our school system.

References by the Bishops Commission for Catholic Education to the ‘rightful autonomy’ of the Catholic sector, echoed in statements by the National Catholic Education Commission, are misleading in relation to schools funding. ‘Autonomous’ in this context implies ‘self-sufficient’. This is at odds with the reality: the Catholic church is now reliant on governments to staff its schools.

  • While it continues to set the conditions and the price that govern entry to its schools, the truth is that the Catholic church itself now has very little financial ‘skin’ in the game. It contributes a small proportion of the funding of its systemic schools. In accounting terms, its contribution would be described as the ‘user cost of capital’. (And, even in relation to capital, it is clear that the level of recurrent provided by governments has enabled income from parents’ fees to be channelled into funding buildings and facilities).
  • These schools are now funded by parents and by governments, overwhelmingly by governments.

Among the fears being spread by church leaders and school authorities is the prospect of forced increases in school fees. This claim also needs to be examined in the light of the facts:

  • Over the years 2009 – 2015, based on the My School data base, Catholic school authorities themselves raised fees by over 40 per cent while, over the very same period, public recurrent funding rose by 36 per cent. Over the same period, wages rose by just under 22 per cent.

What this means is that even when public funding to their schools was being increased, the fees in Catholic schools were being increased by their owners at a rate well in excess of inflation. Creating a panic over rising fees in these circumstances seems, at the very least, disingenuous.

If there is any justification for panic in our national schools funding arrangements it is that governments, Commonwealth and state, have entrusted the schooling of around one-third of our total student population to private providers. They have done this through a unique form of public-private partnership that lacks most, if not any, of the contractual obligations that normally characterise such arrangements. But, rather than panic, there is a need for calm, rational and transparent consideration of how best to build a responsible means of safeguarding children and teachers (not to mention state governments) against the risks so clearly inherent in this bizarre system.

Leaving aside the handful of extremely well- resourced private schools, every school student in Australia is now in a classroom being taught by teachers who are directly or indirectly on the public payroll.

We need, at the first opportunity, to construct public funding arrangements that are linked explicitly and directly to this fact; so that schools funding arrangements are focused on recruiting, developing, nurturing, and remunerating teachers – and on planning the distribution of our teaching force – in ways that provide all our students with access to the highest quality teaching.

We owe our children no less than this.

Lyndsay Connors AO is the co-author with Jim McMorrow of the 2015 report Imperatives in Schools Funding: Equity, sustainability and achievement, published by the Australian Council for Educational Research  

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