LYNDSAY CONNORS. The schools funding question that Turnbull needs to answer

 

‘The quality of a student’s education should not be limited by where the student lives, the income of his or her family, the school he or she attends or his or her personal circumstances’.

This is the statement of moral purpose set out in the preamble to current legislation, the Australian Education Act 2013, where it underpins the funding arrangements put in place by the previous Labor government, based on the 2011 Gonski Review.

Bill Shorten has made clear that it is a principle that he and his party support (as do the Greens).

Do Malcolm Turnbull and the Coalition support it – or not? It’s a simple question and it would be good to hear it asked and answered publicly before the imminent Federal election.

The Australian Education Act 2013 gives a more practicable expression than the Gonski Panel itself to the egalitarian sentiments it espoused, when it argued that:

…new funding arrangements for schooling should aim to ensure that …differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions

The democratic value of equality set out in the Act translates logically into the arrangements for public funding of schools that Shorten and the ALP are taking to the election. These arrangements include funding linked to the achievement of a standard of resources based on educational outcomes and relevant to the diverse needs and circumstances of schools serving vastly different communities; and where coherent account is taken of all sources of funding, public and private, state and Commonwealth.

Of course, no political party boldly proclaims its opposition to ‘equality’ or ‘equity’. The Coalition’s election policy statements numerous references to both. But, by themselves, these abstractions lack clarity. They leave us wondering – equality for whom? And in relation to what?

In the case of the Coalition at the Commonwealth level over past years, these concepts have been variously manipulated to fit a neo-liberal education agenda.

David Kemp, Education Minister in the Howard Government, was the architect of the flawed scheme for recurrent funding of non-government schools (based on socio-economic status of parents as an indirect measure of capacity to pay). He argued on equity grounds that significant increases in public funding to some of the most highly resourced private schools would lead to a reduction in fees and the broadening of access. Simultaneously and conversely, he argued that these higher public subsidies would provide these schools with an incentive to increased private effort (designed to achieved Budget savings). Fees increased, as did the resource gap between these schools and the schools attended by the majority, including those serving students from the poorest communities.

Then his successor, Brendan Nelson, argued that the parents paying high fees to high-resource private schools were making the greatest sacrifice and that equity consisted in providing public funds to these schools as an appropriate reward. The fact that The Kings School in Parramatta was receiving significantly less funding from governments than a nearby public school serving a relatively disadvantaged community was interpreted by this Minister as being ‘inequitable’.

Prime Minister John Howard in 2007 then described public schools as:

… the safety net and guarantor of a reasonable quality education in this country.

This is a view of equity that ignores the effects of large resource gaps between schools serving the most and the least educationally advantaged students, so long as there is a ‘reasonable’ standard of education for the latter.

At least Kemp, Howard and Nelson attempted to construct a justification for their funding arrangements.   The Abbott and the Turnbull Governments have provided no rationale for the funding inequalities between schools that will exist at the end of 2019, or for denying schools operating well below the Gonski standards the resources they need for their students to gain the full benefit from their schooling.

There is no denying that the material and cultural capital available to children growing up in circumstances that are highly conducive to educational achievement will almost certainly be reflected in the distribution of educational outcomes. It would be foolish to deny and churlish to resent this fact.

It remains to be seen whether, or in what form, the Australian Education Act 2013 will survive after the coming election. Does the majority of Australians now aspire to a society where the quality of a student’s education should be, or should not be, limited by where the student lives, the income of his or her family, the school he or she attends or his or her personal circumstances. Is the quality of schooling we want for our own children and grandchildren the same quality we want for children from other families – or not?

Surely in a democracy the least that major parties could do about equity and equality of educational opportunity would be to assure voters that public funds will not be used to maintain or increase gaps in resources among Australian schools that cannot be justified on educational grounds.

Neither of the two major parties has been prepared to make that commitment. But the ALP led by Bill Shorten has made a principled commitment to providing the ongoing and increased funding recommended by the Gonski Review for schools where students are facing significant barriers to learning.

Lyndsay Connors has held senior posts in education at national and state level and is co-author of the 2015 report Imperatives in Schools funding: equity, sustainability and achievement (http://research.acer.edu.au/aer/14/).

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