School funding back in the news

Feb 6, 2024
Coin into piggy bank

It’s our own Groundhog Day experience: when it comes to school funding, we end up doing the same thing over. Jason Clare’s promise to fund all public schools towards their entitlement might bear fruit, but what if nothing else changes?

The background always matters in the never-ending school funding saga. The 2012 Gonski Review established an excellent mechanism in the Schooling Resourcing Standard, (SRS), which is essentially an estimate of the public funding required by each school to meet its students’ educational needs. Alas, it came on top of pre-existing stupidity with the federal government mainly funding private schools and the states mainly funding their public schools.

Dividing funding obligations between the Commonwealth and the states/territories has a chequered history. Even half a century ago, Commonwealth schools’ funding created an opportunity for the states to ease out of some responsibilities. And inconsistency reigns: in 2012-13 the Labor government made separate arrangements between the states to facilitate Gonski funding… and it further fell apart when the Abbott government advised the states (as adult governments, according to education minister Christopher Pyne) to do what they liked.

When it inevitably began to fall over, the Turnbull government firmed up an arrangement which had the Commonwealth funding 20% of public school costs and the states 80% … with the reverse for private schools. But old habits die hard, and the states started counting some dubious ‘education’ expenditure as part of their obligation. And the Morrison government revived a very old habit of making special deals with the private sector.

It was never going to work. Years ago, the Grattan Institute’s Peter Goss summed up the problem: “The federal government has locked in a model where every private school will get fully funded by 2023, whereas very few government schools will ever get fully funded. By 2030 we’re going to be having this same argument and it’s all predictable from now”. He was wrong in one respect: it is falling apart much earlier than 2030.

Jason Clare deserves some respect for returning to unfinished funding business. But the Commonwealth will only fund half the SRS gap, and it has unleashed another round of fiscal feuding in our federal (feudal?) system.

The headlines last week told some of this story. It begins in just one state … an echo of the Labor rollout of Gonski funding. In a bit of an overstatement the ABC reported the deal with Western Australia to “fully fund” its public schools. Then The Guardian reported how other states were rebuffing such a deal, with The Age/SMH pointing to a reigniting of Australia’s school funding wars. For good reasons, including that the funding offer fell considerably short, the didn’t hold back and the Greens called for a halt to school funding accounting tricks… neatly summed up in an editorial in The Age.

Meanwhile The Australian revived another hoary old chestnut in its headline ‘$3bn tied to lift in learning’: the payoff for the extra funding is to include improvements to teaching and student wellbeing. No surprise in that, in 2013 Labor gift-wrapped the Gonski funding into a package of expected school reforms. The latter resonated, but apparently didn’t sufficiently work – hence the forever focus on bigger, better and brighter school reforms. School funding has become transactional, justice and equity takes second place behind demands for a pound of flesh for every dollar.

The current funding initiative is still welcome. Jason Clare is the best chance at the right time, and a bit of trench warfare between levels of government might yield even more. Furthermore, the suggested school reforms have at least been scrutinised by both the Productivity Commission and the recent Review to inform a better and fairer education system. Interestingly, one long-term pattern has been somewhat reversed: school reforms are often paraded to distract from tougher challenges – this time around the funding is the news, the reforms seem to be coming second.

But the reforms are important and it would be good to know how much attention the government will pay to the recent review’s report, Improving outcomes for all. For the first time a review of schools has pointed to the growing segregation of school enrolments as a problem that needs to be addressed. Indeed, it states that the current system entrenches educational disadvantage, in the process making it less likely that other reforms will realise Australia’s longstanding ambition of equity and excellence.

The implication is that while full SRS funding is critical, our whole framework of schools is built around a whole raft of active and passive enrolment discriminators, including fees, entrance tests and much more. Instead of delivering, it consistently divides. The funding will fall short in more ways than one if we continue to ignore such deep-seated problems. Indeed, we’re going to be having this same argument and it’s all predictable from now.


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