LYNDSAY CONNORS. The  Tangled  Education Web. Part 2 of 2: The Catholic Story

‘Sector-blind’ does not mean turning a blind eye to the shortcomings of any sector in distributing public funding received from government. 

As details have emerged of the Turnbull Government’s Gonski 2.0 funding model, the hopes that it might bring peace and justice are fading fast.

Before the announcement on 2nd May, independent schools were expressing fears that they would be an ‘easy target’ for a Minister determined to pare funding from ‘over-funded’ private schools.  But now this sector appears to be the only strong supporter of Gonski 2.0, with some of its high-fee and high-resource schools receiving generous increases.

State Ministers have united to oppose the Commonwealth’s flick pass to them of the responsibility for finding the bulk of the additional funding needed for public schools to reach the Gonski standard and for being reduced to making a submission to the Senate to put their case.  But, if history repeats itself, their opposition will receive far less attention from the Turnbull Government than the outcry from the Catholic sector, and now the National Catholic Education Commission (NCEC).

As church-state relations go in Australia, the bond between the major political parties and the Catholic church has been unique.  And it has been played out, in particular, in relation to the funding of schools.

Behind the confrontation between the NCEC and the Turnbull Government there lie two questions about the distribution of public funding.

Is the Catholic school system receiving its fair share of funding from Commonwealth?

Special funding deals for Catholic schools over past decades have skewed the allocation of Commonwealth funding among public and other non-government schools.  But it takes at least two parties to do a ‘deal’.  And the responsibility for these circumstances lies just as much with successive Commonwealth governments as it does with the church or its schools authorities.

Is the Catholic school system distributing its Commonwealth funding fairly among its own  schools?

It is the responsibility of governments to ensure that the internal distribution of funds within school systems, whether public or private, is consistent with the purposes for which the funding is provided and with the funding formula on which it was based.

In terms of ‘due diligence’, it has become increasingly clear that both major parties in office have neglected their responsibilities and  have been handing huge amounts of public money over years to Catholic schools owned and operated by a church with inadequate and outmoded governance structures and processes.

With the advent of Gonski 2.0, problems in the allocation of public funding to Catholic systems and the internal distribution of that funding have converged and risen to the surface.

There is no suggestion here that this relationship between governments and the Catholic church is the sole contributor to the tangled web of inequalities and irrationalities that have characterised national schools funding prior to and following the 2011 Gonski Report.  But it has certainly been an important contributing factor.

The roots of this relationship lie in the past.   The withdrawal of public funding from Catholic schools when the colonies introduced universal, public schooling created a sense of grievance that simmered until the 1970s. The Catholic schools which served around 20 per cent of the total population were sustained for almost a century by an army of religious teachers who contributed their services.  Throughout the first half of the 20th century the relationships between Catholic schools, the small number of private schools that served the Protestant ascendancy and the public schools that served the vast majority were fraught with class and religious antipathies.

The entry of the Commonwealth as a partner with the states in funding schools sprang from a concern for the educational well-being of the children and young people served by the nation’s schools.  But it was mired in sectarian politics from the start.

In 1955, a split in the Australian Labor Party along sectarian and ideological lines created a political competition for the Catholic vote.

In 1972, the newly-elected Whitlam Government appointed an Interim Committee for an Australian Schools Commission, headed by Peter Karmel, a leading economist.  Its task was to make recommendations on the immediate financial needs of government and non-government schools.  Its 1973 report, Schools in Australia, gave both prescient and proper advice to the Government, pointing out that the problem of accountability for grants is more complex in relation to non-government than government schools.

The report was specific in its advice on accountability for the public funding of Catholic systemic schools, warning that there was a special difficulty because these schools ‘cannot be said to have governing bodies in the accepted sense’.  It recommended that this ‘anomaly’ be dealt with by the establishment in each state of a Board of Trustees for Catholic Systemic Schools, to which Australian Government grants would be paid and which would be responsible at law for ensuring that they were used for the purposes intended.  It also recommended that these Boards of Trustees would contain some membership representative of the public interest, to be appointed by the Commonwealth Minister.

From this distance, it is impossible to know who decided not to proceed with this advice, and to ignore the ‘anomaly’.  If this permissive approach was a sin of omission on the part of the Whitlam Government, it was to be followed several decades later by sins of commission on the part of the Howard Government.

Thinking back over the past decades since the Whitlam ‘settlement’, years during which I had a close involvement in schools funding policy development at the Commonwealth level, I have formed the view that it was the policies of the Howard Government that threw the Catholic system off its traditional course.

The principles of the funding model introduced by the Whitlam Government survived until the Howard Government.  The earlier focus was on students’ learning needs and the resources available for meeting them.  This was assessed on the basis of the resources available to students in their school largely through the fees their parents paid, with public funding provided to meet an agreed standard. This was far more congenial at the time to the traditional Catholic system.  The Hawke Government’s scheme, based on an education resources index (ERI) and a ‘community standard’, accommodated Catholic education as a communitarian form of schooling.  The Howard Government’s scheme, by contrast, dealt with schools from an individualistic perspective, and was designed to fund parental choice to drive market-based competition between schools.  It cut the link between the private resources available in schools and Commonwealth funding; and focused instead on the socio-economic status (SES) of parents as a proxy for assessing their capacity to pay private fees.

In attempting to fit Catholic systemic schools into a model that was more compatible with traditional independent schools, the Howard Government made itself the occasion of the ‘special deals’ for Catholic schools.

These included a political decision in 1998 to re-categorise Catholic systemic schools for funding purposes to Category 11; the ‘deeming’ of an SES score for these schools in 2001, to avoid the funding cuts that would have resulted from their actual SES score and allowed them to retain the funding level they had received from the previous Labor policy; and in 2004, the introduction of a ‘Catholic funding-maintained’ category that prevented funding cuts for the 60 per cent of systemic schools that would have resulted from the formula.

It was no coincidence that these special deals occurred following the abolition of the Commonwealth’s independent statutory agencies, the Schools Commission and the Schools Council that replaced it.  The irrational split between the Commonwealth and the states for the planning, funding, operation and regulation of schooling within Australia’s federal system create a climate conducive to ‘special deals’.

These special deals corrupted a deeply flawed funding model, reduced public confidence in it and placed Catholic schools on a false footing within it.  The shift from a focus on the needs of students to market-based choice and competition also caused tensions within the Catholic sector itself.

By the time of the Howard Government, the Catholic system itself had been changing, and the socio-economic profile of its student intake was moving closer to that of the independent school sector as the numbers of students from poor families began to decline.  But with the help of the Howard Government, the Catholic system was allowed to continue receiving the level of public funding it had attracted when it served a less advantaged clientele.

The role of government at the Commonwealth level was veering towards supporting schooling as a ‘positional good’ – a market-based system in which the victors spoil what is left for the rest.  In this context, a general shift was starting to take place of student enrolments in Australia out of schools serving less socio-educationally advantaged students and into schools serving more socio-educationally advantaged students.

Catholic schooling has been changing inside its old shell.  The 20 per cent of students it now serves has a different profile from what it had in the 1970s and earlier.  Catholic schools have moved up the social ladder.  Many of those who would once have been in Catholic schools are now in public schools, and these are drawn disproportionately from poorer families.  Data released in 2013 by the NCEC reported that of the 47,785 additional students enrolled in Catholic schools in 2012 over 2006, over 97 per cent were from non-Catholic families.  And it is now taxpayers and not the Catholic community that foot the bill for teachers.

But not everything has changed.  Since the advent of public funding, governments have largely left it to Catholic system authorities themselves to manage the internal distribution of that funding.  They have maintained their slapdash relationship with Catholic authorities in relation to the monitoring and accountability that should accompany public funding.

While the Howard Government did not reflect the fact in its funding decisions, its SES-based index had the effect of exposing the change in the socio-economic profile of the Catholic system.  And the election of a Labor government only brought new complications.  When Labor regained office in 2007, the Rudd and Gillard Governments kept the Howard Government’s flawed funding scheme in place for most of their term of office.  And, when Labor established the Gonski Review in 2010, it was to work within the political proviso that there were to be ‘no losers’.  This meant that the effects of Howard’s special deals were cemented into its own funding system, now known as Gonski 1.0.

But the Gillard Government also introduced the My School data base which brought a new level of transparency and which shone a light on the effects of the cumulative political deals.

The Gonski Review also heralded the return of a schools resources standard (SRS).  It built on the tradition of the Karmel target standards and the Hawke Government’s ‘community standard’, but was a more sophisticated and nuanced approach that provided for differentiated standards for schools according to each school’s level of socio-educational advantage or disadvantage.

Under the Gonski models 1.0 and 2.0, the inescapable effect of the Howard Government’s special deals for Catholic systemic schools has been to thrust them closer to their target resource standard relative to those schools, public and independent, which had not enjoyed the same treatment.

When the announcement of the Gonski 2.0 was greeted by a volley of protest from sections of the Catholic school sector.  It seemed logical to assume that what were being described as ‘cuts’ to their funding entitlements were actually ‘corrections’, designed to iron out the inequities and the anomalies caused by previous special deals.  Given that Catholic systems were being given modest funding increases, the protest seemed excessive.

But now the statement from the NCEC, with its references to ‘catastrophic cuts to some schools’ raises questions about whether what is happening under Gonski 2.0 are two sets of ‘corrections’:  the first arising from a accumulation of special deals in the allocation of funding by the Commonwealth to the Catholic sector; and the second arising from anomalies in the allocation of that funding within the Catholic sector.

There is strong evidence for raising questions about the latter, based on reports that some Catholic schools in wealthy areas are receiving more Commonwealth funding per student than needy schools in poorer areas, including regional areas.

An internal report prepared for the NSW and ACT Catholic Bishops also found evidence that resources were being directed to more populous dioceses to the detriment of the greater need in rural and remote dioceses.  This report was prepared by Kathryn Greiner, who brought to her task a wealth of experience and knowledge acquired as a member of the Gonski Review panel.

A 2016 report by the Victorian Auditor-General showed that the Catholic Education Commission in that state was failing to direct state government funding according to need, favouring schools with higher over those with lower socio-economic status.  It also found evidence of the same practice in relation to Commonwealth funding.  This report illustrates that the split responsibilities for schools funding between the two levels of government are conducive both to duplication of effort and to dropping the ball when it comes to accountability and monitoring.

My School has provided Bonnor and Shepherd with the data needed to compare schools which enrol similar students and that face similar needs and challenges and to check this against their funding from all sources.  Their findings show that two-thirds of all schools lie in the 950-1150 ICSEA range, including 93% of Catholic schools.  ICSEA is a measure that allows schools to be compared on the basis of key factors that correlate with educational outcomes.  Within this range, these Catholic schools receive not the sometimes quoted 60% but between 90.8% and 99.5% of the public dollars going to comparable public schools.  So that when their fees are added to these grants, they are operating well above the resource level of comparable public schools. Bonnor and Shepherd have found numerous examples of Catholic systemic schools receiving more than the public funding of comparable public schools.

On the face of it, these figures justify questions about the fairness of the infernal distribution of public funding by these Catholic systems.

Through their past sins of omission and commission, successive Commonwealth governments have done these systems no real favours. An independent, statutory national schools resourcing body must be put in place following the review already commissioned by the Turnbull Government, headed by David Gonski, into how its funding should be invested to enhance performance and outcomes.

In a recent interview, the director of the Canberra-Goulburn Catholic system gave the vaguest answers to the question of how public funds are allocated within his system, referring to ‘all sorts of needs’ and ‘a rich tapestry of need’.

Coupled with the media release from the NCEC, this suggests that Catholic authorities are now defending not only their entitlement to a higher share of public funding than they are receiving now, but about their right to distribute that public funding as they themselves see fit.  The NCEC statement implies a threat to de-rail the Turnbull Government’s Gonski 2.0 funding model.  This would put at risk such hopes as remain of retaining the elements it contains of the original Gonski proposal.

It is important to acknowledge that many Australians have received a valuable education from Catholic schools.  No country has provided a more generous financial recognition of this contribution than Australia.  The sectarianism of the 19th and early 20th century created an understandable sense of grievance in the Catholic community.  But by the end of the 20th century this had morphed into a sense of entitlement.

The Turnbull Government and the National Catholic Education Commission are now at loggerheads.  They both have an obligation, particularly to the students and teachers in all our schools, to bring to the surface issues that have been simmering for far too long.

If Catholic schools are to continue receiving their current high level of funding, there can be no more attempts to skirt problems or to cover them up with political funding deals.  Past experience shows that negotiations behind closed doors only entrench problems.

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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